There are many ways to interpret the phrase ‘A Fine Line’. It could be an exquisite or delicate brushstroke or line of stitching, or a palpable mark of tension: the thin divide. The contrast between these possible readings becomes particularly interesting when you add on the subheading: ‘Where Craft Meets Art and Design’.
‘A Fine Line: Where Craft Meets Art and Design’ is showing at the Chan Contemporary Art Space until April 5th. The Central Craft introduction to the catalogue of the exhibition refers to the two elements of the title as ‘juxtapositions’. Which raises questions which go as far back as 1919, when the Bauhaus Movement’s Manifesto lamented the isolation between the craft movement and ‘professional art’, which it dismissed as ‘inadequate artistry’, reliant on ‘rare moments of inspiration’ rather than fundamental skills. ‘There is no essential difference between the artist and the craftsman,’ Walter Gropius wrote, almost a century ago, ‘a base in handcrafts is essential to every artist. It is there that the original source of creativity lies.’
‘A Fine Line: Where Craft Meets Art and Design’ is a remarkable example of the fusion he was expounding. The exhibition showcases the work of over eighty craftspeople from across the Northern Territory, drawing from a vast region whose diversity is considerable, both geographically and culturally. Yet probably the most striking feature of the exhibition is its unity; the works come together harmoniously, enriching each other, despite the enormous disparity of style and technique.
In the exhibition catalogue, the breadth of artistic intention and expression is striking. Some artists talk of using their medium to express themselves, others talk of utility and function. Some work was created during Churchill Fellowships or at prestigious universities; others were projects at the local quilt group, or reliant only on personal collections. Processes are described as being a form of meditation, others describe them as an obsession. Most talk about the landscape, reflections of their environmental experiences, and the transitions of travel – it’s remarkable how many Territorian artists express a connection with the land, either here in the Territory, or in journeys to it, or through the stories that are embedded in it.
Some describe work held together with tension; many talk of ‘play’ and pleasure. Perhaps the most poignant are the words from the Yarrenyty-Aritare Artists: ‘in the art room or sewing at home we think good thoughts.’
The work in this exhibition transcends the demarcation between craft and ‘art and design’, fusing these apparently distinct elements into works that are testament to creativity, beyond any schools of thought or pretensions. This is due in part to superb curatorship – the exhibition is laid out in such a way that the experience of viewing it is revelatory – there is no boredom or repetition, it’s a journey through dazzling craftsmanship and often humour. It’s not often that hand-knitted tea cosies titled ‘I’m Too Sexy for My Feathers’, can perch next to sternly dignified stained-glass griffins, without seeming in the slightest inappropriate.
But this is the beauty of ‘A Fine Line’. The contrasts between the work, in terms of styles, influences and materials, are marked, but the overall effect is one of harmony. Stunningly skilful works in silver and glass don’t detract from exquisitely elegant pieces constructed from toothpicks or recycled wire. There are dresses designed to grace the human form, and shoes that seem to have lives of their own. Furniture made with the finest of wood and delicate construction, and others made of bolted recycled material. The collection is a tribute to rust as well as the finely polished, to contemporary design as well as traditional skills.
The key is in the balance, the subtle fusion between consummate skill and artistic inspiration – if there is a fine line between art and design, then it is, indeed, very very fine. And, in every form, extremely impressive.