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The “C” Word: Readymades Need Not Apply

The Doris McCarthy Gallery is currently host to an ambitious exhibition. The title of the show, “The ‘C’-Word: A Look at the Role of Craft in Contemporary Art,” humorously refers to an element that often retains a faux-pas status in the art world: craft.

Richard Mongiat, curator of the 18-artist group show, opens his curatorial essay by identifying the rise of conceptual art (and indeed, its legacy) as the harbinger of the death of craft and craftsmanship. (Full disclosure: Canadian Art editor Richard Rhodes also contributed an essay to the exhibition.) Though Mongiat is not accusatory in his approach—he explicitly states that he is uninterested in hierarchies—his writes that his intent is to re-evaluate the art object as the product of a “practice.”

Indeed, the 39 works in the exhibition seem almost self-conscious at their display in a contemporary art gallery; that is, they contain a quality that does not require the justification of the pristine white spaces so often used to intellectualize and add value to “un-crafted” works of art. (This self-consciousness is true even of the paintings, which, though in a medium long prized in the art world, are meticulous in their execution and, given that attention, would well fit in spaces outside the white cube.)

The sculptures by Toronto-based ceramist and printmaker Susan Collett, Largo (2011) and Skin (2009), sit on plinths like dehydrated coral reefs. They are striking in their detail and furtive shadow play. Perhaps they made me read too much Lippard in art school, but the correlation between the presence of the artist’s hand and the presence of beauty (that near-damning word) seems natural given craft’s tendency towards visual, rather than intellectual, stimulation.

The exhibition is filled with works that have been painstakingly executed, such as Susy Oliveira’s The Girl and the Bear, a sculpture created of Chromira-printed card and foamcore that is almost life size. There is no ignoring the careful work of the artist in arranging this early-CGI–esque sculpture. Its mesmerizing, faceted form could only have been achieved through Oliveira’s highly crafted manipulation.

Another Canadian sculptor, Gord Peteran (who enjoyed a mid-career retrospective that toured the US and Canada between 2006 and 2009), is represented in part by Study Station, a small desk and chair covered in white leather and stitched together in a manner that, according to Mongiat, brings the work “kicking and screaming into the realm of art.”

A geometrically robust 2007 work by Toronto-based painter Howard Podeswa, JNW (after the Night Watch), is an eerily corrupted version of the famous Rembrandt work, and it manages to relay the artifice of the original. Jay Wilson’s patternpattern6 and Floppy Foam Stack, both from 2011, stand as miniature monuments to the formal possibilities of dollar-store materials and a patient approach.

I had one difficulty with this exhibition, and an ironic one at that: the concept of the show felt to me a bit more compelling than its execution. Walking through the show, other artists and artworks came to mind that could have better demonstrated Mongiat’s thesis. Perhaps this had to do with something else often associated with the realm of craft: making do with what is at hand.

Nonetheless, the show left a strong impact on me, especially when considering the long-time propensity in the white cube for drier, more mathematical fare. Marcel Duchamp once justifiably suggested that “art should exercise the intellect rather than simply indulge the eye,” but with conceptualist values so prominently (and sometimes disengagingly) present in contemporary art, it remains reassuring to see that art can still be a deeply visual and physical undertaking.

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