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For the Loewe Foundation, there is no higher art than craft

15 May 2024

The Palais de Tokyo in Paris is best known as a site for contemporary art – one wing of it, after all, houses the Musée d’Art Moderne de Paris. In light of this, many visitors to the city might wonder why it’s been taken over by Loewe to exhibit work by the finalists of its craft prize for the next few weeks. The Loewe Foundation has form in taking over high-profile spaces for the exhibitions that accompany its craft prize – exhibitions the creative director of Loewe, Jonathan Anderson, says are ‘as important if not more important’ than the fashion shows. Last year, they took over the Noguchi Museum in Queens, New York. The year before that they were in the Seoul Museum of Craft Art. Both of these sites have a very clear relationship with work that exists in that contested territory between art and craft. But no previous venue has been quite as brazenly a pavilion to high art as the Palais de Tokyo.

Wings of the Blue Bird (2019), Eunmi Chun. Courtesy Loewe Foundation

It is hard to say how this affects the visitors’ reading of the 30 finalists in the Loewe Foundation Craft Prize. For at least 29 of them it seems very clear that they are not being displayed as artworks. But they are not merely craft. Perhaps, more accurately, they are works where the craft is pursued to such a point of exquisiteness that the object seems to transcend the world of craft. In an object such as Heechan Kim’s specially commended #16 – a vessel made of strips of ash wood bent to create a new form that is sanded and stretched and held together with copper wire – the craftsmanship is clearly visible in the fabric and surface of the work. In some ways the technique heightens the beauty of the form. The elevation of such a traditional technique to create something that looks so very modern, almost as though it were digitally rendered, makes it feel as though #16 should be considered as an art object.

#16 (2023), Heechan Kim. Courtesy Loewe Foundation

By contrast, Luis Santos Montes’s Cristalización Orgánica Esmeralda is made from a treated kraft paper that is coloured and folded. Nothing more. There is a childish glee contained within the peaks and valleys of his work, which reaches an even higher pitch when you are encouraged to play with the form yourself, swinging this great mass of paper around the plinth so that it keeps changing shape. The artist tells me how he takes the two-dimensional paper into three dimensions through folding, and how – because of the time it takes him – it occupies a position in the fourth dimension of time. Its shadow, he says, takes the work back to two dimensions. Artists have described their process and intention with less clarity, so perhaps, yet again, craft is not the right word for this. He neatly sums up his act of transformation by saying, ‘If God exists, he folds.’ Many of the works in the exhibition depend upon folding and look, roughly, divine.

Cristalización Orgánica Esmeralda (2023), Luis Santos Montes. Courtesy Loewe Foundation

The winner of the prize, Andrés Anza, displays a similar level of messianic devotion to his craft. He has constructed a 1.5-metre high sculpture made up of ceramic protrusions. There is something biomorphic about the shape but it’s hard to pin down exactly what it’s ‘for’. The judges praised the timelessness of the work, suggesting that, by alluding to an ancient practice found in Anza’s native Mexico, it transcended its own period.

I only know what I have seen (2023), Andrés Anza. Courtesy Loewe Foundation

But for me, the exhibition was at its best in the most literally crafted of works. Two baskets were displayed next to each other. One was made by the Native American weaver Jeremy Frey, the other by the American Polly Adams Sutton. Both of them work in bark, though Sutton chooses cedar and Frey ash. Frey’s is rigorously geometric, using patterns that are brought out by natural dyes; the patterns themselves are expressions of the Wabanaki weaving technique that he learned from his mother. Sutton’s Ebb Tide appears to be much freer and more undulating but there is a similar rigour in the way the tension is controlled throughout the basket.

Symphony in Ash (2022), Jeremy Frey. Courtesy Loewe Foundation

Every year since its inception in 2016, the Loewe Foundation Craft Prize has posed a question: what is the best in craft? It has been flirting with another question: is craft art? Under the roof of a temple to art it becomes harder and harder not to see what is essentially an exploration of art practice. Not everything is as successful as everything else. But what is increasingly clear is the impact of the work done to rescue the careers of artists who have previously fallen foul of museological categories. Exhibitions such as this make clear the effort that has gone into putting Magdalena Abakanowicz or Lucie Rie or Jeffrey Gibson at the centre of the art world’s attention. As well as being a celebration of craft, the Craft Prize might end up being an award that celebrates the dissolution of boundaries. What this world without hierarchies looks like is yet to be defined but it feels as though new territories have opened up for those brave enough to explore them – providing they have good technique to hold on to.

Works by all 30 finalists are on show at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris until 9 June.