CRAFTWORK – Yunhee Min on play and paintings

Will Fowler, installation view at David Kordansky Gallery

How does paint become a painting? For those of us who are in pursuit of this peculiar convention, making painting that is, the answer quickly becomes idiosyncratic as it pertains to each’s particular ways. Naturally, this is when things start to get really interesting.

Craft, more or less a pejorative word in high Modernist lexicon goes back deep in Western
history. In Greek philosophy craft or art, techne, describes activities that engage in making, that is, actually producing a thing or an affect – from arts and farming to medicine among others. Posited as a sister force is episteme understood as knowledge attained by reflective, analytical and theoretical mental activities. While the subtle differences were spoken and pondered at length amongst the Greeks, the relationship between the practical knowledge by experience and abstract knowledge by analytical faculties is a complex symbiotic one rather than one of exclusivity or of pure dialectics.

From early on Modernism had different factions throughout Europe- Arts and Crafts Movement, Art Nouveau, Constructivism, De Stijl, Neue Sachlichkeit, Wiener Werkstätt, Bauhaus, International Style to name a few. While one’s relationship to the world as well as to oneself was to go through radical fundamental changes in material, social, and psychical terms, much of the common goal for these different groups was to change the social conditions and environment, hence, better the individual through means of innovation/technology, science and aesthetics. For William Morris, hand-production signified quality and beauty of individuation. Accordingly, he rejected standardization by mass industrial production. Conversely, the aseptic regimes of Adolf Loos and Le Corbusier had great contempt for craft and viewed it as ornamental and wasteful. For them, it was a sign of historical and cultural regression to a bygone era. Instead, a now classic Modernist dictum, “Form follows function” was heralded as the true Modernist way in streamlining for efficiency both in aesthetics and production. From our vantage point, such convictions and consensus of Modernism may seem rigid and over-determined.

Will Fowler, Hospital, 2012, acrylic on canvas, 65 x 78 x 1.5 inches (165.1 x 198.1 x 3.8 cm) image courtesy David Kordansky Gallery

How then would craft fair today in our technology-deluged information culture of multi-tasking and short attention spans where things are not made to last but to expire? We would likely to agree that a tailor, a carpenter, a chef, or a doctor as craftsman or craftswoman in the Greek sense, where the quality of excellence in their respective specialized field is expected. However, to be more pertinent to this realm of inquiry, how does craft figure as value in our judgment in works of art? How would one evaluate such quality? What would it mean to think about the value of craft in the ubiquitous presence of digital technology in aesthetic production and experience and how does craft operate in technology? What would the discussion on craft tell us in light of recent proliferation of large-scale fabrication production mode? Seeing Will Fowler’s new paintings in current exhibition (through June 30) at David Kordansky Gallery led me to think about these questions. To put it another way, inquiries into various ideas around craft might be an interesting way to think about his new paintings.

Will Fowler’s paintings are full of craft, a kind of craft that is peculiar to painting as an object and activity. Upon entering his exhibition, I was struck by copious spread of primary colors, fields of reds, blues with some dispersed yellows. Primary colors – not exactly what one might consider to be “artists’ colors” of tonal quality – confront you, especially when there are plenty of them. The impression of the paintings from a distance is flat-ish and constructed. That is, even at this distance, the hand-production seems intelligible. They are full of edges and seams but not the sort that have some sense of intermediary transitions. The compositions seem both of forms and fields, ranging from blobby to geometric shapes that are clunky and mechanical rather than say, digital.

Approaching the surface, there is a myriad of topographies. Left by blotting, brushing, scoring, masking, drawing, staining, possibly scratching and other ways, the edges, shapes, and areas show the activities of making. Something like an implosion of material effects made by the activities of making a painting, any sense of pictorial unity or compositional order really falls away when you are close to it. For example, Fowler uses tape to make lines, shapes, and fields. He also uses tape to make forms, and to seal off areas. Moreover, he uses tape like a measuring instrument as well as a tool for spills and leaks. The surfaces are full of such improvisations suggesting no particular order but of simultaneous happenings. The micro scale of these events solicits close looking, presenting the materiality of paint, surface of the fabric, and the activities of making to you.

Will Fowler, Outside, 2012, acrylic on canvas, 65 x 78 x 1.5 inches (165.1 x 198.1 x 3.8 cm) image courtesy David Kordansky Gallery

Richard Sennett, in his study of craft and craftsman socio-historically, economically, and
culturally discusses the value of play for the practice of craft. It is when such space opens up in practicing of craft, be it cooking or engineering, that it leads to new inventions, innovations, and discoveries.1 The notion of “play” is not simply a resistance to productivity. More compelling is paidia, a type in Roger Caillois’ typology of play where the objective isn’t to win or lose. Rather, it is a type of game playing where the structure and methods of the game are at the mercy of being re-made at any point, pushed and improvised or abandoned altogether as the game is played.2 Unlike ludus, which subscribes to fixed rules and discipline with the objective of winning or losing, like football or a game of poker, paidia is a kind of playing that calls for active participation. Its responsive fluidity is generative for new possibilities for continuity through improvisation and uncertainty. One’s craft in a work of art may then be materially played for surprises and intensities leaving the expectations on perpetual suspension. Play is a serious business as it were.

  1. Sennett, Richard. The Craftsman. Yale University Press, New Haven & London, 2008. Sennett looks closely at the socio-economic histories and cultural values of craft, its labor, and its material conditions in human development. Citing examples throughout history and heeding on the18th century Enlightenment when people made things well and making was part of an intricate web of social infrastructure where specialized knowledge and information were shared, practiced and passed on, Sennett cites the open source software Linux system as a contemporary example.
  2. Caillois, Roger. Man, Play, and Games. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2001. Both Huizinga and Caillois argues for autonomy of play, free from other productive activities such as work or ritualized activities such as attending school or church. Four different forms of play Caillois discusses are: agon (skill-driven, competitive, e.g., sports), alea (gives in to fate, chance, e.g., horseraces or lotteries), mimicry (simulation, involves role-playing, e.g., children playing doctor, theatre, spectacle), and ilinx (hallucinatory, pursuit of momentary disorder, perceptual shift, e.g., roller-coaster ride). While such delineations help to ground initial structure to the ideas of play, they are also limiting in view of today’s post-industrial economy. ‘Creative’- an adjective traditionally relegated to the function of play in ‘creative field’ like arts and craft, has gained a cultural capital today as a desirable quality in all sectors of economy. Privileging knowledge and information and intricately linked to technology rather than material-based tradition or manufacturing, work and play hold a more complex symbiotic relationship in contemporary culture.

Yunhee Min is an artist who lives in Los Angeles and teaches in Vancouver, BC.

David Kordansky Gallery

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