California Handmade: The Masters of Craft
“There are no innovative artists who can afford to live in New York anymore. It’s ridiculous. If you want something that’s fresh and new and avant-garde, they won’t be in New York. In LA, you can have a massive studio space for a fraction of the cost.”
This is Emily Zaiden, director of Craft in America, a brick and mortar space in Los Angeles dedicated to showcasing the best in American craft. This summer, through a partnership with Alta Loma’s Sam Maloof Foundation, Zaiden and The Craft in America Center have narrowed that scope to showcase specifically the state of the craft movement in California. And while there are artists still thriving in New York City, there is no doubt that living expenses have changed the art landscape, and Zaiden would contend for the better.
“There’s something about the whole California lifestyle being more open and relaxed, and that’s what these shows are about- showcasing what’s amazing about California,” explains Zaiden.
The exhibit is meant to be a rejuvenation of the celebration of California’s craft movement, something that hasn’t been done in an official sense since the California Design Show, a series of craft triennials in the 1970s. “They became really influential, and they encapsulated that midcentury style. They ranged from very individual studio-made one off pieces to production pieces to outdoor furniture. They were massive shows with hundreds of objects.”
California Handmade, the extension of the exhibit at the Maloof Foundation in Alta Loma, has closer to eighty objects, but California Masters has only twelve. Though small, the spread represents a diverse spectrum as the curators sought out one artist each from Northern and Southern California for each of the six craft disciplines: fiber, ceramics, wood, glass, metals, and alternative materials.
What makes these exhibits more than just a recycling of the California Design Shows is the way the craft landscape has changed in the 40 years since those original shows. They bridge the gap between the craft art movement then and now. Especially at the Maloof, pieces created with cutting-edge technology such as 3D printing are included side by side with those created in traditional craft materials and traditions.
Zaiden explains, “We wanted to look at what’s happening in CA now, and we wanted to look at what’s happening in craft and art and design now and these totally blurred categories so much more than back then.”
The categories are so blurred because of movements and shows that have taken place in California over the years. Zaiden says that picking the craft subcategories was easy. The difficult part was figuring out how to categorize each artist. Many MFA programs now are geared toward the conceptual rather than being material-based as they once were, and master artists who did focus on just one material early in their careers have often taken on different materials over the years.
Part of this trend is a result of the design industry having a greater sway on the art world. “So many artists have become designers because that’s where jobs and resources are, so that’s where a lot of creative people want to be working.”
Additionally, the acceptance of craft as a fine art form that came with the boom of the 60s and 70s has pushed many of these artists to go conceptual. Zaiden provides the example of Wendy Mariama, whose piece in California Masters is a mirror with a wood-carved frame which Zaiden points out has strong elements of chinoiserie, as well as a video of a woman applying geisha makeup disorientingly super-imposed over the mirror. “Mariama trained in furniture-making, and originally made incredible post-modern functional furniture, but overtime, her furniture became more and more sculptural, and now she’s even incorporating video,” as in the piece on display here.
Marilyn DeSilva, a metalsmith, created “Silent Journey,” a purely sculptural and surreal representation of a book whose contents—a deep blue river, a footbridge, and a small bird- appear to erupt from the cover. The metal is hand-painted and “she incorporates all sorts of materials even though she’s a metalsmith. The technique is what defines her.”
Even in the most straightforward cases, Zaiden explains that perceptions of pieces have changed as craft has moved conceptual. Sandy Simon’s offering to the exhibit, a basic pot, “is a symbol of all these ideals and values that she aspires to, and the perception of that one small contained vessel is everything. Even though the piece is utilitarian, it has all this meaning behind it. It’s not just a little jar.”
The intentions, what each artist is trying to communicate with their pieces, are ultimately what make this grouping so cohesively Californian. Zaiden sees through lines in the ideas each artist is exploring— ideas like ecology, the environment, repurposed materials.
“As makers, they recognize that they’re bothering to create something new and put it into the world, so a lot of them are concerned about whether they are adding more stuff to the world in a positive way.”
Steven Portigal is experimenting with unfired ceramics with his piece in the exhibit, “Nature Mort (Rouille).” “If you’re a ceramics artist, firing is a massive part of what you do, so for him to move away from that because of the carbon output and all that, is pretty bold. The materials are different, so it changes the color, the texture, the glazes all of that,” explains Zaiden.
Consuelo Jimenez Underwood takes a stance on immigration, another common thread for many of the pieces, with her tapestry “Undocumented,” depicting flowers from four Mexican states on the border. Each segment is woven through with a piece of barbed wire to represent the wall at the border. “I think landscape has always been influential on Californian artists. All the various geography comes through and inspires a lot of them.”
Each of the 12 pieces is on exhibit at the Craft in America Center through October 3, 2015, and the Maloof Foundation exhibit, California Handmade, extends through January 2, 2016. A speaker series at the Craft in America Center will include glass artist Jaime Guerroro, whose life-sized migrant farmworker glass sculpture is available for viewing at Craft in America, and Frau Fiber, fiber artist, textile worker, and activist.