by Samantha Knopp

Rebecca Warren
H, 2006

Craft. It’s an irksome term in the contemporary art world, even if many consider the whole art vs. craft debate to be tired and over. It’s a word that has inherited a multitude of associations, making it vague and thus uncomfortable to use, especially around its conjoined twin, art. It is easy to imagine craft being enthusiastically extolled as a virtue of honed skill and quality, a lauded reaction to our fast-paced, outsourced and industrialized society. Of course, it’s also easy to imagine craft being dismissed entirely, seen as the demotion of artist to hobbyist, a pleasurable but potentially vapid, insular pursuit, stuck in the past.

But this pesky word and its many connotations have been constantly on my mind during the Glenn Brown and Rebecca Warren exhibition. Maybe that’s what happens when you get a ceramic artist as an intern.

With Rebecca a connection to craft doesn’t seem strange at all. Clay has an inherent craft resonance. In fact, questions on this topic have been some of the most common, especially once I have announced my own material inclinations. But what about Glenn and his paintings? It’s not a medium that’s often associated with craft even though craft’s most basic definition is to make things with skill by hand.

Peter Voulkos
Tientos, 1959
(photo SF MOMA)

Because of my background in ceramics, material and process are often the first things I am drawn to in any work of art and these are key to both Glenn and Rebecca’s practices. These aren’t contemporary artists in the mold of Jeff Koons or Damien Hirst with “art factories” and laborers; both understand the individual pursuit of making as central to their work and they want us to know it.

Let’s start with Rebecca. Crudely-modeled, unproportioned, and unfinished bodies that are cracked and crumbling make the handmade quality of her work blatantly obvious. Her approach to clay is one that doesn’t fit the archetypal ceramic pattern. There are no trimmed and tidy forms, polished or glossy surfaces to be found. It can be tempting to see this as an intentional dialogue with the history of ceramic objects, since that’s where we usually situate clay. I think this focused interpretation of a material can be problematic however, particularly with Rebecca’s work. Even if we are to link her to her most likely ceramic ally, potter/artist Peter Voulkos’, whose challenging “mucky” sculptures from nearly 50 years ago resonate well with Rebecca’s equally unrefined and expressionistic bodies, I don’t think this is her lineage*.

Glenn Brown
The Sound of Music, 1997

No, Rebecca is a sculptor and her work in clay is confronting that tradition. There, clay has generally been a player but never the player, largely because of its association with “the minor arts”. The modeling material for maquettes and moulds, clay was often replaced along the way by a material with more prestige and gusto. It’s humorous, then, that Cube, our only non-clay work (made from cast bronze) then takes the form of this crude base material, a lump of slightly prodded clay. Rebecca seems to embrace an almost anti-craft approach in a material that historically either had to exist as a refined and fired object or not be shown at all.

Glenn Brown’s work does not have the same obvious connections to craft, and certainly isn’t stylistically similar to Rebecca’s work. Glenn’s work is calculated and eerily pristine. The Sound of Music, a visceral paint sculpture probably comes closest to breaking out, but even that seems contained in its clean custom-made vitrine. The focus, at least in this collection, instead becomes about his masterful appropriations of other artists’ works – where the mimicry stops only when Glenn decides and not for a lack of ability.

Unlike Rebecca, Glenn presents a façade of machinery, paintings so flat, smooth, and unmarked that many think they are digital prints at first glance. It’s a strange practice for a contemporary painter since the medium has, for the last 150 years, celebrated the expressive brushstroke. From Van Gogh to Pollock or Twombly to Peyton, the trace of the maker has been a virtue, a marker of the individualistic spirit that encapsulates modern western art. The seeming anonymity of Glenn’s work is thus somewhat reminiscent of an artistic philosophy more conducive to craft, which has rarely been about the individual maker.

But, of course, there is an individual behind these works, and once people learn that the “how?” question comes out in full force. Most people are awestruck by Glenn’s painterly prowess, though I have often thought Glenn would’ve had the harder time in an art school critique. Modern art is less concerned with skill for skill’s sake, and tends to value expression ahead of ability. Glenn’s emphasis on technique is more similar to craft. His paintings are fussy, almost pedantic, small brushes carefully laying down delicate threads of paint to weave a sort of tapestry. These are works created over many months, layer after layer, informed by years of careful observation and a life-long apprenticeship in the halls of Europe’s museums.

Glenn Brown
They Threw Us All in a Pit and Built a
Monument on Top (part 1 and 2)
, 2003

Glenn is passionate about his work, but his works do not arise from spontaneous fits of passion. He takes the work of a master not as an untouchable, unique expression, but as the very opposite. Each work is part of the tradition, created with narratives and techniques that, like the celadon bowl, can be revisited again and again. This philosophical approach isn’t typical of a painter, but in many ways reminded me my own practice working with ceramics and its craft affiliations.

So perhaps there is a conversation of craft present here if you have ears to hear. Although not placed side by side, there is an undeniable shift in materials and manufacture as we move from Rebecca to Glenn. We have one artist working in clay and another working in paint, each rejecting and revealing the established norms of their respective disciplines, and in so doing, making us aware of the hierarchies around material and process present in the worlds of art and craft.

*Adamnson, Glenn. “Making a Mess: Ceramic Sculpture Now”. Schein-Joseph International Museum of Ceramic Art at Alfred University, 20 Nov 2008. Web.