High craft raises the bar

2012-09-18 08:10

American-born installation artist Liza Lou’s work seeks to add art market value to all those craft workers hustling artefacts on city street corners.

She showed a door-sized panel at the yearly Joburg Art Fair last weekend with a price tag of R3.8 million.

The work is titled Plan Prepare Execute. It may warrant that we hazard to credit her with a special, if not new, category: highcraft. It raises the bar on craft work as high art.

Lou’s work enjoyed pride of place at the Goodman Gallery’s booth. It’s made up of millions of glass bead tubes. These are the tiny cylinders from which the seed-sized beads are cut. She has arranged them to form relief and colourful geometric patterns.

Something like Lego blocks mimicking carpet weaving. The works tells of the painstaking discipline of an artist determined to achieve a level of technical perfection. The result is as fascinating as it is pleasing.

Lou often enlists the help of volunteers, craft workers and students to realise her ambitious works. She has been based in South Africa since 2002 and maintains a studio in Durban, where she collaborates with 40 rural artisans.

Some of these come from families who have been making bead work for many generations.

However, though Lou’s laborious work displays the collective effort it takes to realise, her motifs are decidedly non-provincialist.

Her visual references are culled from a globalised cultural awareness, even when she is codifying specific ethnic designs.

The 43-year-old shot to prominence in 1995 with a 15.6m² work titled Kitchen – a life scale, fully equipped replica of a kitchen complete with furniture and utensils that she covered in glass beads.

She has since produced similar installations all around the world as she explores critical overlaps between craft and high art.

Through its sheer size and technical demands, Lou’s work speaks to a meditation on process and meanings of creative perfection or the impossibility of its attainment. It’s a quality she has famously wrapped up in what she calls “the culpability of craft”.

Seen in an accidental curatorial context along with other artists employing the same medium at the Art Fair, the works merge two historically divided areas of practice: art and craft.

This will benefit craft workers who’ve been relegated to the hinterland of serious debate for many years. Their participation in these prestigious works is foregrounded by visible acknowledgements and the fashionable status enjoyed by interdisciplinary art-making approaches.

Lou was not the only artist pushing a collaborative agenda using beads. At the northernmost section of the trading floor hung two of Wayne Barker’s recent work in the Everard Read Gallery’s booth.

These are 200x200cm panels titled Lady Gaga and It’s In Your Head.

The work continues Barker’s revisitation of Hendrik Pierneef’s paintings, with their politics of land and identity in the “colony of a special kind” that was apartheid South Africa.

Pierneef was the regime’s creative champion and Barker rejects the white nationalist legacy of the older painter. Barker uses Pierneef’s famous landscapes as a base on to which he makes interventions by portraying subjects that were outside of Pierneef’s ideological bracket.

Barker’s beaded panels are a result of his collaboration with a group of craft workers from a women’s organisation called Qubeka in the Western Cape.

His creative process begins with him working alone in his studio on a computer, employing sophisticated software. Once he’s satisfied with his picture, he sends it over to the craft workers, who transpose his vision into glass beads on large-scale panels.

Their genuine artistic merit, coupled with Barker’s weight as a brand, means the work can attract considerable returns. This raises the market standing of his collaborators.

These two celebratory works do not go unchallenged, though. As if intent on faulting Lou and Barker’s lofty efforts, there’s a cheeky work by Ed Young. It hung somewhere in the middle of the floor like an interruption.

Also made of glass beads, the piece is slightly cantankerous and seeks to say: “Hey, we’ve all seen enough glass beads pretending to be high art. Can we move on now, please?” The work is deliberately titled The Last Bead Work #1.

It’s a 180x200x5cm mat of black glass beads with the white ones arranged in the centre to spell the phrase “Bead Work”.

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