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Do craft objects need a purpose?

30 May 2023

From the June 2023 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.

When an artist dies, there is always a question of what exactly will happen to their studio. Some studios simply disappear among the detritus of city life. Some have their insides preserved but, in a reverse form of embalming, are then detached from the external body (for instance, Francis Bacon’s). Others become the home of artists’ foundations that then devote as much energy and spirit to the preservation of the artist’s reputation as was devoted to creation by that artist in the first place. In the odd streets of Astoria, New York, an alternative way of handling such a space is being proposed.

The sixth edition of the Loewe Foundation Craft Prize is being exhibited in the studio space of Isamu Noguchi (1904–88). This nondescript, single-storey building is where Noguchi worked from 1961 until he died, and it enabled him to identify the empty Depression-era factory opposite that he purchased in 1974 to transform into what remains the Noguchi Museum, with its seductive formal garden and evasive stone sculptures.

The campus of museum and studio has a strong personality, somewhere between Buddhist retreat and hushed design store. The studio itself is made of red brick walls that support a bank of uninterrupted iron-frame windows, the same height as the bricks. Inside, the space is clear and bright – but as the late afternoon sun comes through one side of the building, a living mural seems to be created by the tree outside. Its leaves are vivid green – the only colour visible from this white and grey interior. This is a happy reminder of the influence of nature upon Noguchi – and it sets the tone for a space in which is currently displayed the work of the 30 finalists in the Loewe Foundation Craft Prize (until 18 June).

Founded in 2016, this prize rewards artistry – but with its close attention to technique and process, it is not an art prize. It would be misleading, however, to suggest that function is the primary concern. This leads us to an interesting proposition when the figure of Noguchi is so directly invoked.

Noguchi is a man to whom the descriptor ‘polymath’ is often attached, which might just mean ‘hard to categorise’. He was certainly an artist, but he also designed sets for Martha Graham, baby monitors and lampshades (in a style that was copied by nearly everyone from Habitat to BHS). He is possibly best known for his coffee table. Yet his work sought to push objects to a point of uselessness precisely to discover what their point was, pitting craft and function against each other. Seen in this light, the works in the Loewe Foundation Craft Prize exhibition seem to be having a conversation with the previous inhabitant of the space. They prove their right to be in his company by their technical virtuosity.

black ceramic vessel

Black Triangulated Form (2022), Prue Venables. Photo: © Loewe Foundation

Even one of the apparently simplest objects in the room demonstrates a mastery of material. Black Triangulated Form (2022) by Prue Venables is a hand-thrown Limoges porcelain vessel. Its base is a triangle set in opposition to the triangular profile of the opening at the top. The form is further complicated by the curves of the surface on the sides of the vessel. Painted in a rich black glaze, it seems to suck in the light, insisting on the viewer the cool, understated confidence with which it defines its own relationship to space and volume.

Perhaps it is the boldness of the New York sun, but the works that most caught my attention are the pieces that seemed most fragile. Luz Moreno Pinart’s El Retiro (2022) and Jana Visser’s In the Almost (2021) stand out from their more substantial counterparts. El Retiro in particular flirts with invisibility. Almost inconceivably thin strands of paper are knotted together in a technique that Moreno Pinart learned in Kyoto: the adoption of national techniques into the practice of artists (or is that artisans?) of other nationalities is a feature of this cadre of makers. The knots are painted red. Delicately hanging on a Perspex board, the red ends of the knots suggest countless dried flowers knotted together – a web of saffron. Each knot is supposed to represent a significant moment in the artist’s life; I don’t know that such a literal-minded interpretation brings all that much to the work, especially when Moreno Pinart also explains the floral echo as an allusion to pollen and representing life and growth. Flowers have quite enough of a language not to need this translation.

In the Almost evokes matters of life and death through weaving, rather than knotting. A wave of gossamer strands of weft, achieved with a jacquard loom, are manipulated so that they hang in delicate arcs like some beautiful abstraction of a spider’s web. A wonderful object in its own right, the inspiration for the piece is the cyclical passage of breath through the body and its relationship with the rhythmic movements of weaving.

abstract white sculpture

Metanoia (2019), Eriko Inazaki. Photo: © Loewe Foundation

Narratives such as these raise a question about whether the craft works on show are capable of sustaining such interpretations. There is no denying the technical prowess of each work on display here. Some of it is truly mindboggling – see the exquisite delicacy of prize winner Eriko Inazaki’s ceramic Metanoia (2019) that took more than a year to make and seems to depict a fantasy landscape upon its surface – but that doesn’t mean they need to be a meditation on something specific to be meaningful. Noguchi was interested in uselessness as a means of stimulating thought. He was no stranger to inviting interpretation through carefully chosen titles, but then again, he built his own museum to make sure people looked at his works the right way.

As well as being a thrilling celebration of talent, this exhibition suggests that there might be something rewarding in looking at these ‘useless’ objects not with thoughts of Noguchi in mind, but in defiance of him. It is not the mastery of Zen philosophy that craft objects need to evoke, but simply mastery of technique and process.

The Loewe Foundation Craft Prize 2023 exhibition is at Isamu Noguchi’s Studio in New York until 18 June.

From the June 2023 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.