art v craft; round 1

by Abigail Percy on 26/03/2006

in Fibre+Needlework

I’m always very interested in intersections of high and low art, and blurring lines between art and craft. Yet it’s rare to see them pitted against each other.

stephen sollins

The very generous Sharonb who maintains the free online stitch dictionary keeps a really interesting blog. (NB: This is from last year, but so very provocative. Sorry if it’s old news to anyone else!)

Sharonb posted about her mixed feelings about the work of an artist, Stephen Sollins who takes old samplers and pulls out the thread- erasing the work. He re-embroiders modernist color-blocks over the faded image. One thing she took umbrage to was the mention that “Sollins eulogizes the anonymous craftsperson while elevating commonplace linens to fine art” on this gallery’s website.

The thing I think is: “but is it good art?” In a way, I think this series of work is a clever and simple device, and a conceptual one-liner. I do think it is important to see an artist’s work as part of their larger body of work. I have not seen Sollins’s other work, but I would guess that he probably meanders among media, and makes similiar conceptual mind-candy. I’m guessing his work might be more about ironic statement-making, rather than work about embroidery or domestic history. I doubt the work was intentionally about the erasure of woman’s history by a dominant autocratic male force. (intermission, heather checks google images for sollins’s work). In another series Sollins “created an array of horn mutes, cast in translucent acrylic, that sculpturally symbolize musical silence.” (from NYT Art Reviews) (heather confirms guess).

Though this may not be brilliant by design… it is interesting how it has energized the space around this topic. Does it matter if the artist originally intended the work to result in the meaning? I don’t think it really does. I often think an artist cannot understand their work fully, until it becomes a cultural artifact and is absorbed into a social fabric of audience interpretation. (yes i’m part of *that* camp).

His work sparked a huge backlash of needlecrafters who were seriously offended. Apparently he has several hexes on him now. But don’t blame Stephen, he innocently stumbled upon a prickly subject. He tried apologizing and explaining his work, but SFGate said “he is apparently talking across a cultural divide he may not have known existed.” (from a review on SFGate) That is putting it mildly.

The comments on Inaminuteago show some highly charged emotional responses: ” I hope their ghosts come back to haunt him big time!!!!!!” and “I saw some of this work at the Art of the Stitch in the UK a few years back and it really upset me”. For that, it is an an effective artwork, and hats off to Stephen for his ignorace of this cultural divide, which makes it all the more poignant. I think effective artworks provoke thought and emotion, and remind us of things we had not known we had forgotten. Not all art is about love and beauty, as life is not all love and beauty.

The reaction to this work belies that with all the advances woman have made in many western countries, there is still alot of pain passed through generations, and lost history never to be recovered.

What is this really about?

I think this kerfuffle is about the use of female-domain crafts for male-dominated high art… As more and more handcrafts are brought into fine art, both female and male artists are exploring the materials and methods of handcrafts. It’s a kind of art-trend occuring at the moment, rippling through the genre. As in the 60’s advertising was explored in pop-art, or how in the early 20th century the subconcious mind was explored in surrealist art. Perhaps -culturally we need to spend some time re-interpreting and re-considering how we feel about handcrafts, and making things. And artists need to make these serendipitous blunders to help illuminate just why it is we are compelled to work on this topic.
Susanb wrote another post in response to the comments- on The cultural Value of textiles.

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