Summer camp was probably the last time you heard someone talking about crafts. But craft as a concept and artistic practice has gained tremendous traction, despite traditionally being shoved to the outskirts of the art world.
One example of craft’s newfound recognition is Craft Contemporary, formerly known as the Craft & Folk Art Museum, in downtown Los Angeles. In their words, Craft Contemporary “reveals the potential of craft to educate, captivate, provoke and empower,” by focusing on “contemporary art made from craft media and processes.”
This is simply a cool museum. Instead of being preoccupied with building a collection, Craft Contemporary focuses on highlighting emerging contemporary artists and offering creative art workshops to the public. And this ethos extends to the building itself: Craft Contemporary’s façade is always covered by a temporary public art installation. In 2013, for example, it was covered in crocheted squares by Yarn Bombing Los Angeles.
“The Body, The Object, The Other,” the museum’s current exhibition, is open until May 10. It features ceramic art pieces from 21 contemporary artists that center around the human body and figuration.
To be honest, I rolled my eyes (just a little bit) when I first heard the title of the exhibition — it comes off overly serious and intellectual, as artsy titles sometimes do. I knew I was going to be writing this piece, though, so I decided to reflect on “The Body, The Object, The Other” for at least a few more seconds.
The introductory wall text of the exhibition explains that the craft of ceramics encompasses all three items: It is the human body because it so directly carries the imprints of the artist’s body who worked upon it, but it also paradoxically exists apart, as an object and a removed entity from the artist.
When I walked into the gallery, I was struck by the sheer variety of textures, shapes, colors and styles immediately on view. I started writing down a list of some adjectives I could use to describe the art: smooth, lustrous, matte, detailed, jarring, profound, uncomfortable, attractive, surprising, colorful, earthy, hand-hewn, creepy.
Many of the works are unexpected. For example, Alex Anderson’s ceramics are glazed, white and shiny with metallic gold accents. Look closer, however, and you’ll see that his pieces are based on emojis: heart eyes, a peach and an eggplant. His works reference contemporary emotions and iconography, but with a classical stylistic touch.
The next works that caught my eye were Gerardo Monterrubio’s sculptures — a sitting dog, a statue of the Virgin, a head with bulging eyes — covered with drawings of myths and violence that mix Catholic, Mexican and Mesoamerican aesthetics.
Other works included Bari Ziperstein’s colorful pots covered by graphics based on Soviet Union propaganda, Phyllis Green’s stout, muddy ballerina figures that play with the willowy stereotypes of dancers and Cannupa Hanska Luger’s art, which involves visitors by asking them to mold clay themselves, becoming part of a widespread gesture against the trauma and deaths occurring at the U.S. and Mexico border.
Not all of the ceramic works are even objects per se. Two walls of one gallery are covered by neatly arranged rows and columns of smudgy terracotta, peachy stains. Nicole Seisler’s “Preparing” (2020) consisted of the imprints left over by the act of wedging on the wall, or kneading clay to prepare it for sculpting. This work, then, is “preparing for the sake of preparing.”
The ultra-repetitive nature of “Preparing” evokes feelings of uselessness, but there’s also something meditative about the repetition. Mastering any skill requires patience and a dedication to repeating actions, even mundane ones like wedging, over and over again.
“Preparing” is a collaborative work that Seisler, previously a Scripps College professor, executed with the help of former students, including Ella Scudder-Davis PO ’21.
“Something that was impactful for me was to see that the important thing about ‘preparing’ is the mark it leaves behind, not the object itself,” Scudder-Davis said.
As a title, “The Body, The Object, The Other” gets at what the exhibition does well — it pushes at the boundaries of what ceramics can be as a craft and as an art. While nailing down the definition of craft can be tricky (Merriam-Webster defines craft as “an occupation or trade requiring manual dexterity or artistic skill”), for many artists, their craft is much more than a trade; it is their art.
“The Body, The Object, The Other” showcases how ceramics, a medium so quotidian that we regularly eat off of it, can embody a million different messages, from the unassuming to the moving.
Frances Sutton PO ’21 is TSL’s art columnist. She is an art history major who enjoys sewing and attempting to convince people that her hometown of San Francisco is the best city in the world.