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Santa Barbara Museum of Art exhibition explores contemporary culture's obsession with the handcrafted
Grayson Perry, Map Of Truths And Beliefs, 2011. Wool and cotton tapestry. Collection of Eileen and Richard Ekstract. Courtesy the Artist and Victoria Miro, London. © Grayson Perry.

SANTA BARBARA, CA.- Labour and Wait, SBMA’s major summer exhibition, features 15 international artists and artist-collaboratives who bring 21st-century urgency to age-old virtues of hard work and craftsmanship. The exhibition title is adapted from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem “A Psalm of Life” (1838), which extols living life to its fullest and alludes to the rewards of physical labor.

Comprising over 38 sculptures, videos, and drawings, Labour and Wait highlights contemporary culture’s preoccupation with authenticity and the handcrafted as well as issues related to manufacturing and labor. The presentation also addresses the resurgence of a Do-It-Yourself aesthetic in art of the past two decades, highlighting the contradictions and connections between the handmade and the heightened technological advancements of our current era. Emphasized are works that illustrate current-day representations of the analog. Are such works viable in today’s world? Are such tendencies an action of or a reaction to technological progress? These questions, among others, are explored throughout the exhibition, catalogue, and related public programs.

Consumer demand for the handcrafted, the artisanal, and the small-batch has been prevalent in recent years in everything from apparel, to food and drink, to retail sites such as Etsy. Why this dominant desire? Thought-provoking answers have been presented in articles, symposia, and manifestos outside and inside of the academy. As Adam Sachs articulated (in “Artisanal America,” Aug 2010), “Certainly an ailing economy deserves some credit. When everything is falling apart, it helps to know how to put things together. And isn't that the secret message of so much artisanal longing? That when everything goes to hell, we'll all become potters and learn to make bread. The sheen of Wall Street gone, bubbles burst, it's better not to be flash these days. The true signs of taste—of connoisseurship, of knowing what matters—are letterpressed in small type on recycled paper, embossed on hand-dyed leather, elegantly announcing: Objects made simply are more valuable than they appear.”

In the fine or “high” arts, “craft” is a word and a concept that has been traditionally shunned, but embraced in recent years by younger generations who utilize craft just as readily as they do other techniques in creating their work. Allison Smith, one of the artists in the exhibition, in an interview with contemporary craft scholar Julia Bryan-Wilson commented (Modern Painters Feb 2008), “For many of my political artist role models, the critique of the commodification of art entailed a rejection of hands-on making―and craft became a bad word. So bringing back the political-activist spirit to something interactive and bodily is really important.”

Artists in Labour and Wait include highly influential figures who began exhibiting in the 1980s and 1990s, such as the renowned British artist, Grayson Perry, recognized for making and exhibiting ceramic pots inspired by medieval design embellished with highly contemporary and sexual subject matter. He has since added to his repertoire epic tapestries, which, like the pots, speak to venerated traditions and purposes, but are saturated with contradictory references including fast food icons and urban slang. Several ceramic pots and a large tapestry represent the artist in the exhibition. Also featured are 2 major works by Los Angeles artist Tim Hawkinson, who creates meditations on nature, machines, mortality, the body, and human consciousness utilizing common store-bought materials and found objects (including such unassuming materials such as fingernail clippings and eggshells). One of his works in the exhibition, Foot Quilt (2007), recreates in large scale a human footprint with silver polyester fabric and batting, a provocative stand-in for skin. Another sizeable mechanized work, Orrery (2010), depicts a woman at a spinning wheel made from plastic bottles. Many of the elements—even her head—spin like the planetary globes of an antique orrery, alluding to the dichotomies between the individual and the universal.

Significant works by other artists in the exhibition include sculptures and drawings by David Thorpe (British artist living in Berlin), whose work highlights the relationship of the object with its maker, emphasizing the interconnectedness between work and lifestyle. Inspired by the aesthetics and theories of the Arts and Crafts Movement of the late 19th century, his sculptures employ historic construction methods and motifs that reference utopian ideals evoking not only the past but also the future. Also featured is a large-scale installation titled Stockpile (2001) by Bay Area artist, Allison Smith. Works by Smith are inspired by early American craft techniques and the practice of historical reenactment (especially that of the Civil War). As noted in the exhibition catalogue The Old Weird America (organized by the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston in 2008), “Smith looks to the past―to the ways earlier generations expressed themselves in what they made and how they lived―for information on how to live in a time of war, and how to navigate the slipperiness of gender and identity as well as the artificial divide between art and craft.”

An enormous Peruvian-style tapestry, Mammoth and Poodle (2010), represents the 2012 Marcel Duchamp Prize winners Daniel Dewar and Grégory Gicquel (France). This collaborative team embraces traditional techniques such as stone carving, weaving, and ceramic-making in their desire to reintroduce craftsmanship within an over-industrialized, polished, and “serious” art world. According to reviewer Florence Derieux (Flash Art Jan/Feb 2007), “Like two professional amateurs, Dewar and Gicquel have created their own way of life in which fishing would be the equivalent of what playing chess was to Duchamp. Radically opposed to the notion of the ready-made, their practice involves instead great manuality [sic] and labor.” Film and video artist Mika Rottenberg (New York) is represented with an installation—Fried Sweat (2008)—and a collaborative work resulting from a project she and Jon Kessler were commissioned to produce for Performa 11, titled SEVEN (Cecil) (2012). In both works, Rottenberg’s fantastic visions escalate the cycles of labor and production to levels of absurdity.

Other artists in the exhibition include seminal figures such as Wim Delvoye (Ghent) and Peter Fischli and David Weiss (Fischli lives and works in Zurich; Weiss died in 2012); as well as internationally celebrated artists Theaster Gates (Chicago) and Josiah McElheny (New York). Also included are works by Tonico Lemos Auad (London/São Paulo), Andrea Bowers (Los Angeles), Colin Darke (Derry, Northern Ireland), Ricky Swallow (Los Angeles), and Jane Wilbraham (London).

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