Conceptual crochet/Conceptual beauty

The revitalisation of craft and aesthetics in Australian contemporary craft

Art is an idea, not ‘high-brow craft for a cottage industry’s specialised market’. So Joseph Kosuth simultaneously disdained craft as ‘dumb’ and doomed to commodity status, and claimed for art a higher ground, that of the transcendent, immaterial mind versus the immanent, material body. Art is about ‘what is being said rather than the form of the language’, that is, it is an analytical proposition. Art depends on its artistic context and its nomination as art by the artist, its status or raison d’être wholly abstracted from any material implication, perceptive or referential.

In Art After Philosophy, Kosuth attempted to ‘transfer the notion of authorship from the “auratic” and visible aspects of the work to the mental and invisible processes’ of making.(1) He claimed that ‘the artist is not unlike a scientist for whom there is no distinction between working in the lab and writing a thesis’. Aesthetic evaluations did not simply mislead the artist concerned with conceptual investigations, they were basically extraneous to art. Art needed to free itself from its morphological restrictions and could only do so by ‘becoming aware of its functioning as a kind of logic and thus absorbing the function once relegated to criticism’. As Gabriele Guercio observes, Kosuth’s concern to control the conceptual processes ruling art’s practice had all but edited out the work.(2)

The increasingly hard-line stance of conceptualism guaranteed that the reductionist battlelines would be drawn between formalism and conceptualism in art, although this schism took place in the context of a ‘deep-rooted suspicion of the formal elements of the visual arts by all who profess engagement’ that some critics trace to the dichotomy between truth and beauty that has dogged aesthetics since Plato.(3) Nevertheless, the schism had profound consequences for postmodern art and criticism given that these drew heavily on the conceptual legacy. To be concerned with aesthetics, with form, and with the craft of making, came to be cast as an expression of elitist culture and a badge of conservatism, while conceptualism was deemed to have exclusive access to criticality—and the two were regarded as mutually exclusive.

Amongst the principal heirs of that conceptual moment were the anti-aesthetics of postmodernism, approaches to art-making that sought to sever the connection between artist and work, even between viewer and work. Drawing on the affectless, anti-retinal, anti-skilling impulses of minimalism and conceptualism, the postmodern anti-aesthetic added abjection and popular culture to the mix to become the archetypal ‘critical’ practice of the 1980s and early 1990s. However, its limited range of aesthetic devices—its reliance on shock or shunning—and its narrow interpretative frameworks—in particular institutional critique—increasingly frustrated artists. Art that eschewed technical skill, labour intensive traces of the artist’s hand, and the pleasures of looking as much as of making, gradually lost ground, as artists who nonetheless considered themselves part of the conceptual tradition began to engage with craft, materiality, and aesthetic effects that aimed to delight rather than repel the viewer. One particularly topical local example of this tendency is the artist representing Australia in the 2005 Venice Biennale, Ricky Swallow, but there are many others, including Fiona Hall, Robyn Backen, Savandary Vongpoothorn, Gwyn Hanssen Piggott, Janet Laurence, Robyn Stacey, Helga Groves and Cherine Fahd. These are artists whose work maintains the critical acuity, self-reflexivity and contextual awareness of conceptualism, but draws upon a radically expanded aesthetic language that is not afraid of beauty (despite the fact that some artists are still wary of the term).

A recent exhibition that bore out and augmented this argument was a group show curated by painter Christopher Dean at the Cross Projects in Sydney in November last year. Cleverly titled Conceptual Crochet, the exhibition’s premise was that certain contemporary artists are marrying the traditions of craft with conceptual analysis. The works that Dean brought together—mainly paintings, drawings and prints, with some sculpture—in the small, bright room of the Cross Projects typify that move away from the austere or abject works that characterise much post-conceptual art, towards an art that deploys delight and positive affect without foregoing conceptual engagement. The works betray a way of working that accents the hand, touch, texture, imperfection, authenticity, and singularity—in other words, some of those very aspects that conceptualism had sought to uncouple from the art object. However, this way of working is always tempered by the self-reflexivity of a conceptual practice, an awareness of ‘context’ as Dean puts it in his catalogue essay: the context of one’s role in the art world; the context of the gallery, the market, and critical discourse; the context of those cultural forces that produce one’s own psyche and create the place in which the artwork will be read and interpreted. The artists in Conceptual Crochet share the experience of being educated in conceptually based schools, where they were encouraged to inform their work through analysis of these contexts, but discouraged from engaging with the craft of art, where their work was disdained for ‘looking good’.

Dean singles out weaving as the archetypal craft to argue for the link between craft and conceptualism. Thinking entails the intertwining of distinct strands into a coherent whole, rendering something compelling from a series of fragments through a process of intuition and analysis. Thinking, of course, is not a faculty of the intellect alone, but a continual exchange between the bodily senses and the brain, an exchange in which the hand as sensor plays a crucial role. The hand is also our principal method of transcribing and documenting sensory stimuli, acting as a vital medium for impressions as they are formulated into thoughts. Weaving also reminds us of the heuristic aspects of doing: we learn as our body traces out connections, and our conceptualising is inextricable from the physical act of doing.

Weaving also evokes the labour-intensive, time-consuming nature of the craft process. This duration becomes imbued in the work, in a way that is quite distinct from conceptual gestures that typically attempt to efface the traces of the maker. The artist’s time, often palpably present in beautifully crafted art, can create its own form of engagement, as the viewer is drawn to reciprocate by spending time with the work. The intricacy sometimes associated with a thoroughly crafted object also invites the viewer to spend time with it, often at close quarters, creating the possibility for a more intimate exchange, a more reflective experience. Scale also plays a part: human scale is generally more conducive to the delight of discovery than overwhelming scale that may evoke the fear of the ungraspable. The gallery of the Cross Projects is unmistakably a domestic space, the small, sunny lounge of a terrace house, its fireplace still intact. The works are of necessity relatively small, but rather than diminish them, their size helps attune the viewer to their intricacy.

From the meticulous hand-painted op art patterns of Judith Duquemin, whose carefully negotiated tones bend and bounce off the canvas, to Justin Trendall’s delicate text networks that have been translated from digital to cloth by screenprinting, the works in Conceptual Crochet catch the viewer in mid-step. Fiona MacDonald has literally woven photographs together into new objects, a methodology shared by Kate Mackay using coloured ‘craft’ paper. The effect is wondrous, the works oscillating between two and three dimensions, between reconciling and separating their component images. The paintings of Shaun Weston and Christopher Dean, too, toy with the line between sculpture and painting, their seductively textured and coloured surfaces often built up from found objects with special relations to the body, such as chenille bedspreads. Elizabeth Pulie, whose early paintings were a challenge to conceptualism’s taboo on decorativeness—she wanted to use what was dismissed as frivolous, decadent and anti-intellectual to see where this might lead—represents the relation between movement and thinking that is so integral to craft in her drawings of a yoga position. Jacqueline Rose’s scoured drawing whose very subject is its many erasures and re-inscriptions; Liz Day’s unravelling wall sculpture that spills thread and colour like overflowing thoughts; the modest decorative spray-can stencils by Helen Nicholson; John Aslanidis’ psychedelic paint recordings of sound waves—they all embody the relationship between idea and craft that is evoked in ‘conceptual crochet’.

Rather than compromise their potential for conceptual engagement, it is arguable that the craft, the sumptuous aesthetics, embedded in these works actually lends them a critical sensibility. The aesthetic experience that I call ‘conceptual beauty’ (a term I coined but which clearly finds resonances in Dean’s ‘conceptual crochet’) offers a means of understanding how this critical effect might arise.

The key to ‘conceptual beauty’ is the relationship between intense attention, decentred subjectivity, pleasure, and communication, a relationship that entails an integrative response of concept and soma. Beauty beckons the beholder with its visual rhetoric, including its formal strategies that elicit pleasure, and extracts time from the beholder, striking him/her into a specific form of thought marked by amplitude and generosity. The act of intense attention refreshes the vision of the beholder, enabling a different form of looking, a form that is not subject to the distractions of other stimuli. Rather than remain at the level of sensual pleasure, beauty impels the beholder to thought, to conceptual engagement, in a manner that underlines the integration of mind and body. In this moment of intensely focused attention, the beholder experiences a sense of decentring, of feeling adjacent to him/herself, a sensation that is accompanied by intense pleasure. This unselfing that beauty can evoke is integral to the capacity of beauty to facilitate an experience of community; for an instant the beholder experiences an expansiveness beyond the self that brings with it a sense of something shared and universal and a disposition that views with delight the particularities of the world. It is an attitude that has the potential to forge a radically different ethical relationship to otherness, one that greets the other with wonder rather than fear. Beauty can be a gesture of reconciliation, offer a form of aesthetic amnesty through its generosity. Beauty can incite the desire to save from destruction that which is beautiful, but also, by extension, that which comes increasingly under beauty’s domain as a result of beauty’s honing and refinement of the beholder’s visual and conceptual faculties. Beauty can also act as an aesthetic vernacular, allowing a more direct communication with the beholder that does not rely on an exclusive or arcane language.

An engagement with conceptual beauty in contemporary art, I propose, has the potential for a critical practice that is particularly apposite to current social and political realities. Beauty, rather than necessarily being captive to the market, rather than being reliant purely on sensual appeal to the detriment of conceptual stimulation, rather than being a frivolous or kitsch gesture that precludes political action, is a powerful aesthetic strategy that can nurture a critical disposition and facilitate a regeneration of our engagement with the world. Through its ability to focus our faculties of attention and refine our sensibilities, through its power to decentre us and thus compel us to take a position of difference, through its democratic impulse, which allows for a certain sense of shared or community experience, and through its deployment of the aesthetics of delight, which in the current context fascinate us with their novelty, beauty in contemporary art has the potential for critical engagement.

Conceptual Crochet. Installation view, The Cross Art Projects. Showing left to right works by Elizabeth Pulie, Jacqueline Rose, Kate Mackay. Photograph Brenton McGeachie. Courtesy the Cross Art Pojects, Sydney. 

Fiona Macdonald, Authority, 2000. Courtesy the artist and The Cross Art Projects, Sydney. 

Judith Duquemin, Holy Hell, Holy Hell 2, Holy Hell 3, 2004. Acrylic gouache on canvas, each 60 x 50cm. Photograph Brenton McGeachie. Courtesy the artist and The Cross Art Projects, Sydney. 

left: Justin Trendall, Untitled (black, red, créme), 2004. Screenprint on cotton cloth, black 90 x 62cm, red 42 x 29cm, créme 91 x 102cm. right: John Aslanidis, Sonic Fragment No. 2, 2003; Dislocation Fragment No. 12, 2002. Oil, alkyd and acrylic on canvas, each 56 x 66cm. Photograph Brenton McGeachie. Courtesy the artists and The Cross Art Projects, Sydney. 

notes: 

1. Gabriele Guercio, ‘Introduction’, in Joseph Kosuth, Art After Philosophy and After: Collected Writings, 1966–1990. MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass. & London, 1991, xxv.

2. Ibid., xxviii.

3. Estelle Jussim, ‘Icons or Ideology: Steiglitz & Hine’, in The Eternal Moment: Essays on the Photographic Image. Aperture, New York, 1989, 143.

This article is in part a response to the ‘cross conversation’ between the curator Christopher Dean, the artists and myself, organised by Cross Projects’ coordinator Jo Holder during the exhibition. Jo saw the resonances between Christopher Dean’s curatorial argument and my recent research in Australian contemporary art. I would like to thank her for her invitation to participate in this dialogue, and for providing supporting material for this article. Thanks also to Christopher and the artists. 

Conceptual Crochet featured the work of John Aslanidis, Elizabeth Day, Christopher Dean, Judith Duquemin, Fiona MacDonald, Kate Mackay, Helen Nicholson, Elizabeth Pulie, Jacqueline Rose, Justin Trendall and Shaun Weston. Curated by Christopher Dean it was shown at The Cross Art Projects, Sydney, 12 November-4 December 2004.

Jacqueline Millner is a Sydney-based writer.