Craft and art, Belinda Jones

100 New Zealand Craft Artists 
Helen Schamroth
Godwit, $75.00,
ISBN 1 86962 036 4

Helen Schamroth defines her book as a “personal snap-shot of the late 1990s that offers a representative sampling of a broad range of recent work by practitioners active in their craft during this decade”. Whilst acknowledging that this book is not a “definitive history”, Schamroth still produces a formidable and wide-ranging compendium of contemporary New Zealand craft artists. Significantly, she acknowledges that diversity and plurality are the core defining and unifying features of the genre.

Schamroth should be praised for including “emerging” and/or young craft artists as well as those experienced and acknowledged within the field. Following the successful format of 100 NZ Paintings (1995) and 100 NZ Artists (1996), this book offers a fair and non-hierarchical approach to its subject.

Each artist, irrespective of experience, or institutional success, appears alphabetically and is allocated a page of text and a full colour image. The standard of photography and quality of reproduction is also excellent – particularly of note is the innovative photograph of Peter Viesnik’s glass goblets. As well as the revered and/or well-known names of Diggeress Te Kanawa, Len Castle and Maria and Ola Hoglund, it is exciting to be introduced to the work of relative newcomers such as Emily Siddell, Niki Hastings McFall, Rose Griffin and the late Rangi Kiu.

Within this structure, Schamroth follows an integrated approach to her subjects’ work and life. Except for a brief resumé under the artist’s name, she refers to biography only if it is relevant to an understanding of the work, and she discusses recent developments within the broad context of the artist’s oeuvre.

She provides a sense of continuity and thematic structure by teasing out the issue of diversity in training/education and media. The implicit challenge to the reader, especially curators, art writers and critics, is to acknowledge alternative forms of education such as life experience, whakapapa, apprenticeship and training in other fields or media. Schamroth validates the career of jeweller/sculptor Alan Brown, for instance, who was trained in farming, building, landscaping and furniture making, and she also includes artist Toi Te Rito Maihi’s “life-long education in Maori art” alongside his formal teaching certificates.

Important to any discussion of craft is the relationship between “art” and “craft”. Schamroth unites her disparate subjects by considering their work in relation to this tension. For instance, she includes the work of Margaret Stove, who specialises in designs of knitted lace, and she discusses the ways in which Diana Parkes utilises the time-honoured technique of women protesting through embroidery. Deborah Crowe describes herself as an “artist working from a textile base”, which challenges the status attached to the terms “fine artist” and “craft artist”. Blurring further boundaries between disciplines is the work of the Rangi Kiu, who challenged traditional gender roles by working with both wood and fibre.

Given the broad definition of the genre, the criteria for selection become more contentious. On seeing Maureen Lander’s installation, “String Games”, I made immediate comparisons with the mixed-media installations of Jacqueline Fraser. She also refers to traditional Maori fibre materials and processes, but is considered a “fine artist” and is not included in this book.

It is the probing of this issue and the range of individual approaches represented that is most valuable. However, I cannot help wondering whether the term “artist” should be applied to all genres or disciplines, thereby enforcing a code of democracy amongst painters, sculptors, photographers, printmakers and craft artists. The previous two books do little to challenge the traditional hierarchy of genres with the embarrassing distinction they make between “painters” and all other artists.

With any survey of the arts, it is inevitable that the selection will be challenged. Whilst sympathising with Schamroth’s difficult task, I do query the lack of representation of lower South Island craft artists. I am pleased to see the Fluxus contemporary jewellers from Dunedin, bookbinder Michael O’Brien from Oamaru, and Peter McKay from Akaroa, but wonder about the Canterbury contingent. After consulting with colleagues in Christchurch, it would be fair to say that Judy McIntosh Wilson is conspicuous by her absence. Other suggestions for inclusion would be Vanessa Whall, Marilyn Rea Menzies, Blade and Gary Arthur.

In its broad scope and accessibility, this book is arguably the best of the three Godwit surveys. Schamroth does much to address the lack of published material on craft art in New Zealand: she updates the profile of craft artists and brings them into the 90s. If Schamroth has approached her subject in terms of the snapshot, then her book succeeds as a lively and diverse album of contemporary art practice.

Belinda Jones is Assistant Curator at the Robert McDougall Art Gallery, Christchurch.

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Posted in Art, Non-fiction and Review
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