With major contemporary artists like Grayson Perry championing the history of craft, and fairs like Masterpiece and Frieze Masters displaying contemporary art alongside major decorative pieces, it seems that the avant-garde is finally embracing traditional decorative arts. About time too, as collectors have long been mixing cutting edge contemporary art with their antiques, picking and choosing pieces not with a slavish dedication to one era or style, but with a general interest in art and its many histories.
This idea is explored by Adrian Dannatt in his exhibition Now & Then, on until 26th October at Harris Lindsay, Jermyn Street. Combining works by contemporary artists with the more traditional stock of his hosts, Dannatt plays with the tropes of art old and new, creating temporal layers across the exhibition. Orpheus Gathered, an assemblage of elk bones, bound together by crocheted wool, and accompanied by a recording of the last castrato, (Alannah Robins, 2012 ) hangs suspended over a micromosaic table top, depicting the ruins of the Roman Forum. Such a contrast adds depth to Robin’s work, recalling the full cultural history of humanity, as the elk bones seem at once both ancient and modern, as much a part of obscure pagan ritual as contemporary art practise. The table top acts as a bridge between these worlds, filling the art historical gaps by evoking classical civilisation and its many revivals. Through all of this runs the theme of collecting and reforming, from the assembled elk bones, to the rebuilt forum, and finally their context together in an antiques sale room, surrounded by objects from a multitude of periods and places.
Downstairs this interplay between contemporary and classical continues, with Steven C. Harvey’s pencilled designs of futuristic vehicles sitting alongside an elaborate eighteenth century architectural engraving of a gate. United by their medium of monochromatic marks, they show at once how contemporary design remains grounded in tradition, but also how new technologies have expanded man’s imagination, allowing us to think up innovative products beyond the comprehension of our forefathers. Elsewhere the impact of technology on the arts is succinctly illustrated through the contrast of Julie Cockburn’s The Quandry, 2012, and an eighteenth century crewelwork panel, laboriously embroidered with a design of the Tree of Life. Cockburn has hand embroidered brightly coloured circles of thread over a found photograph, reinvigorating a neglected object with the fleeting touch of the artist. By comparison, the hundreds of hours of embroidery in the crewelwork panel seem like a herculean task, showing the extraordinary shifts in our expectation of art undergone in the twentieth century.
The triumph of this exhibition is allowing us to reconsider the boundaries of art and craft, by placing works by contemporary artists and traditional decorative pieces on a level playing field. The artisanal craftsmen of previous centuries may not have been considered in the same terms as today’s largely concept driven artists, but it seems sad to confine them to a lower rung of the artistic hierarchy, particularly when the idea of ‘fine art’ has been so effectively challenged, with many artists now dabbling in areas traditionally labelled ‘craft.’ This exhibition highlights this shift, even occasionally leading the viewer astray, as suddenly a pair of nineteenth century South American condors start to look like Brancusi sculptures, whilst an instillation using a Georgian tea caddy and some stuffed birds seems like a macabre mistake. Ultimately, these more traditional pieces stand up to the comparison, showing that the decorative arts are not devoid of meaning, and suggesting that they have fed into contemporary art practise in much the same way as the finer arts of sculpture and painting. With contemporary art finally embracing craft, perhaps it’s time to rethink the canon.