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Rhizome Central

Clare Graham, MorYork Gallery and The New Craft Paradigm —

To enter MorYork gallery in Highland Park you follow a curve of finished concrete beneath an understated, vaguely neo-deco pediment. The functional, just-so quality of this entrance amplifies the aesthetic shock you encounter stepping into what is either an Aladdin’s cave full of techno-primitive wonder, or a poetic cargo ship adrift on a sea of dreams — possibly both at once. The high-ceilinged space is so full, floor to ceiling, with handcrafted wonders that the eye is never sure where to settle, and therefore stumbles along bejeweled surfaces and up curving forms fashioned in startling ways from the familiar products of mass production. Lacquered cabinets open to reveal collections of animal bones and industrial bric-a-brac, multitudes of aluminum pop tops gather into couches and chairs, jigsaw puzzle pieces and swizzle sticks rise into elaborate organic assemblages, buttons stack up in huge branching cylinders evoking the primordial growths that thrive along deep sea thermal vents, and everywhere surfaces have been constructed out of dominos, yardsticks and tin cans. You tread softly in the high-ceilinged space, speaking in whispers to your companions as you circulate this vast collection of things that rhyme.

On a second, or more likely a third visit, you can begin to contextualize what Clare Graham has created at MorYork. Antecedents include Marcel Duchamp’s cunning appropriations of unremarkable factory products, along with the surrealist technique of defamiliarization that makes the ordinary remarkable and noteworthy again. In ways that resonate with the re-purposed lithograph collage novels of Max Ernst and the display-case aesthetic of Joseph Cornell, Graham and his partner Bob Breen celebrate the covert expressivity of humble synthetic materials such as plastic and aluminum, and, in their furiously patient, iterative revision of assembly-line style production, create a new kind primitivism capable of looking forward and backward in time at once. The result is an anarchic, post humanist version of the royal collections that were democratized into museums during the Victorian era. By reclaiming mass-produced commodities – toy soldiers, doll’s eyes, aluminum can pull tabs, plastic arms – from the fetishism of capital, stripping them of their decontextualized generality, and making them singular once again, Graham’s totemic craftsman approach underscores the continuity of inorganic production with the organic processes of biology.

It would be easy to view MorYork as a late entrant in the craft rebellion that percolated within mid-century modernism, when So-Cal ceramacists like Peter Voulkos, John Mason and Kenneth Price began to demonstrate how those working in the traditional artisanal trades could produce elevated works of fine art. But there’s something else in play at MorYork. The typical craft complaint assails the wall dividing craft from art, laying claim to the prestige of art on behalf of some previously denigrated material, such as clay or glass. But the repurposing project taking place at MorYork more radically embraces the differences between art and craft and, flying in the face of a powerful cultural bias, valorizes the latter. Graham is not laying claim to the elevated positionality of the artist, but rather celebrating craft as craft. The craft vocation does not suffer, at MorYork, from an inferiority complex and in its chosen task – reclaiming mass produced items – it makes the case for the equality of craft as an aesthetic pursuit.

MorYork stands out at a time when the lumbering, armored vehicles of prestige and cultural power in which these celebrity artists like Jeff Koons and Marina Abromivic dominate the landscape. These artists have become corporatized branding enterprises that operate on a global scale and employ small factories for the manufacturing of style; concept has become an excuse for bad technique covered over by a finely cultivated hauteur of ironic detachment that is catnip to an arts press geared toward gossip and fatuous PR. While the artist-ego seeks to impose form from on high, the craft-ego views the creative act to be a coaxing forth of inherent expressivities in a relational dance, the material itself suggesting the form. It was Warhol, arguably, who completed the trajectory of the sovereign artist which began with the Romantics, and we have been thrashing around ever since, re-hashing the same ironic gestures and tactics, even as more basic cultural tectonics have shifted our relationship to aesthetic experience in subtle ways. With the proliferation of digital technologies and social media, everyone can be a self-branding artist – it’s the craftsman, with his patiently cultivated material skills, who stands out.

On display at MorYork are not objects so much as populations of objects, swarms of them, flocks of them – in this church multiplicity is worshipped rather than unity. We feel as if we have been given a temporary pass into the spaces where new forms are born, like the hunters of prehistory who stumbled on huge caverns whose flowing limestone walls suggested a primordial womb so pregnant with animal forms the outlines just needed to be traced in ash and pigment. And Graham has listened to his humble objects. Take the branching structures mentioned above: it’s as if, gathering a host of buttons, Graham has listened carefully to their collective murmuring in order to decipher what it is they like to do with each other once the functional spell we have them under has been removed.

To reveal the expressivity of mass-produced items in this way is also a political gesture, one that puts pressure on some deeply rooted assumptions we may not even realize we are hauling around with us all day long. In an age-old split, western thinking privileges episteme – abstract reason – over practical knowledge – techne – leading to the infamous mind-body split that has driven innovation in our technological modern age. In the grip of a powerful bias in the direction of the abstract, we have come to believe we inhabit a world in which matter is dead, an inert substance. To account for the wild abundance of forms we encounter at all levels of experience – clouds, mustard seeds, hummingbirds, tractor trailers, mason jars – we must call upon some outside force – a transcendent shaper God operating from a realm of pure idea, perhaps, or maybe the operation of dialectical laws only Hegelian philosophers can comprehend. But from the perspective of techne — of the pragmatic maker rather than the abstract thinker — material itself is not dead or inert, but rather imbued with innate expressivity. There is no need for any governing influence from above – left alone, matter itself generates an abundance of different forms which emerge into self-organization, and then lift off into ever more complex assemblages including, ultimately, self-replicating, living entities that gather into intricate ecologies of self-amplifying complexity.

On the level of political philosophy, this conflict between episteme and techne came to a head in the late 60s when Marxism itself revealed a background investment in epistemic presuppositions that, to many thinkers, helped to undermine its lofty intentions and its effectiveness in the world. Following the lead of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, a score of recent political thinkers – Isabelle Stengers, Bruno Latour and Manuel DeLanda to name a few – have recently been exploring what it means to put techne first in their political program. To do so requires, among many other things, avoiding the language of reified generalities – Capitalism, the Corporation, Democracy, the Market – and embracing instead a process ontology in which every situation is a unique, historically particular singularity, an assemblage open to skillful interventions across the different social and psychological scales. Capitalism with a capital “C,” from this point of view, becomes one among many possible forms of craft or sorcery – we are entranced today by an extremely limited set of big, glittering, seductive ideas that unfortunately also happen to be a little suicidal.

The ferocious either-or of epistemic thinking animating our destructive techno-scientism chokes and sputters on the kind of quiet counter-sorcery served up at MorYork, falling quiet at this altar of faintly delirious sanity. This is to say that the political dimension of MorYork is affirmative rather than negative, directing our gaze to the ways rational cognition is only one mode of comprehension among many, thereby disturbing its claim to an ultimate sovereignty. In this way MorYork registers as an ontological counter-insurgency in which the products of mass production are returned to a world of embodied singularity — returned, that is, to their mortality. We come to notice the ornate, celebratory qualities these plain objects have been hiding “in plain sight,” and we leave MorYork wondering about our own hidden capacities, and what might bring them forth.

Comments

  1. Sherry Sonnett says:

    Wonderful piece, Guy. Thank you for it…

  2. dov rudnick says:

    Holy mother- fucking shit balls!, that there is a mouthful….and as usual a meaty and nutritious bite. A first reaction is that your piece is written in the manner of “techne”, a moulding of found-objects from the landscape of the G. Zimmerman consciousness….a proper homage to the subject at hand. I would be interested to hear you re-state these ideas in simpler language if only because I detect a strong whiff of populism in this piece. The preoccupation with abstract ideas tends to draw us away from an experience of the vibrant material world of our senses. Furthermore the realm of ideas tends to become the domain of the “educated”, where as the material and practical world is the everyday stuff we share with the other 7 billion. Fascinating also to consider our relationship to the “inanimate” world. A troubling thought for me has always been how in tarnation did life emerge from so much other non-living “stuff”. The pursuit of craft, or better, the activity of craftmaking might draw its allure in that we become intimate once more with the liveliness of the material world.
    In any event, the need for contemporary artists to promote and brand themselves in order that they might make a career for themselves is tiresome at best, and nauseating at worst. And yet we can also identify with the seeming necessity to do so if only the “make a name for ourselves’. I find more comfort in the simple, everyday(and profound) desire to find beauty, delight and intrigue in the space we live in.

  3. a vivid rendering of a brilliant space, or a brilliant rendering of a vivid space . . .. way to go, Guy! thanks for a great read! xooShawna

  4. as they say in the passover ritual:
    if it were only a descriptive marvel, that would be enough.
    if it were only a set of ideas about objects, that would be enough.
    if it were only a diatribe against contemporary arts practice, that would be enough.
    But to synthesize all of these, and turn it into a beautiful essay — that’s abundance, sufficient for rejoicing.
    (I don’t know where this religious turn of phrase comes from, Guy –but maybe your beautiful piece is responsible,

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