You don't have to wait until Labor Day to drive to Santa Barbara to see Labour and Wait, the provocative exhibition at the museum on view through September 22. Curator Julie Joyce noticed curious fact among a number contemporary artists. A number of them were making art with the time-consuming dedication of artists of the pre-industrial age or with the obsessive patience of those more usually associated with crafts.
This is not the stance of those who hold with the post-Warhol school, whereby studio assistants do the painting, or casting, or rendering. In fact, many of these artists are inherently exploring labor in terms of the theories of William Morris of Britain's Arts and Crafts movement, or John Ruskin, not exactly required texts in today's MFA programs.
She cites Etsy, knitting circles, hand-made beers or eyeglass frames as evidence of a larger concern with handicrafts that has spread unexpectedly into a digitally immersed generation.
This narrative brings together 16 international artists, ranging from established to emerging. Daniel Dewar and Gregory Gicquel, live in Paris and call themselves "professional amateurs," learning various crafts by simply plunging ahead. The show includes their mammoth tapestry (banner image) woven on a frame loom that took up their studio. Appropriately titled Mammoth and Poodle, (2010) both of the wooly animals are roughly figured. Thick tassels hang from the bottom edge and it has none of the clean edges desired by professional weavers but does have clout.
Theaster Gates, from Chicago, is known for integrating his art with politics, with community involvement. His ceramic dishes are presented in cabinets or chests that reference home or small stores and imply a story that is part of a larger history. Soul Food Starter Kit (2012) is an extension of meals that he presents in abandoned buildings that he has restored on Dorchester Avenue. The simple dishes, which he makes with the help of Japanese ceramists, refer to those used by slaves while the wood of the cabinets is reclaimed, what he calls "upcycling." The labor involved reverberates with the labors of those who are not artists.
Tim Hawkinson, who lives in Los Angeles, is known for the obsessive detail of his sculptures and drawings, which are often based on aspects of his own body. In this case, however, he has built a larger than life old woman sitting at a spinning wheel but it is constructed of cast-off clear plastic bottles. The platform beneath her, covered in bicycle tracks, turns slowly causing her to move, an animatronic figure spinning her yarn, with barely noticeable speed. Recognizable as a homey 19th century character, she is rendered in the materials that clog our landfills and pollute our oceans. The wry title is Orrery, (2010) the model of the solar system.
The political implications of labor are reinforced as well by Andrea Bowers in rendering of the Industrial Workers of the World motto onto collapsed cardboard boxes: One Big Union (2010). The allegorical figure of Liberty, a woman carrying a torch to light the way for the workers, alludes to the role women played in the unions historically, a role Bowers supports today.
Josiah McElheny, who lives in New York, is known for his hand blown glass and this show includes glass goblets and dishes that he copied from Renaissance paintings of the last supper, notable for the difference in styles. English artist Grayson Perry's ceramics feature elaborate narratives but this show also includes a tapestry called Map of Truths and Beliefs (2011) that integrates his own personal beliefs and experiences with historic pilgrimage sites.
The exhibition doesn't demand conclusions or attempt to boost a school of craft in art but it does raise a number of questions about the role of the artist today. For more information, go to sbma.net.
Banner image: Dewar and Gicquel, Mammoth and Poodle, 2010; Wool tapestry, approx. 15 x 30 ft; Collection of Laura Lee Brown and Steve Wilson, 21c Museum, Louisville, Kentucky; Image courtesy Galerie Loevenbruck, Paris
Julie Joyce/Santa Barbara Museum of Art