Crafted: Objects in Flux was a recent exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Emily Zilber curated the show and wrote the accompanying catalogue.
Zilber is an astute art historian and has carefully chosen her words in titling this publication. The title does not denote a category of art, but references the concept behind this book. Her approach created an opportunity for inclusion and possibilities.
The works assembled could easily be considered sculpture or conceptual efforts, yet this art is inconspicuously grounded in ideas that motivated the most progressive late 20th century craft artists. Each of the individuals Zilber includes has a heightened sensitivity to materials and fabrication, and at the same time, share a creative orientation driven by curiosity and intellect.
In this exhibition, Zilber confronts notions of craft versus fine art, which has been a contested issue in the art world for decades. She does not argue a point of view. Instead by bringing together a group of artists so smart and insightful, she renders that conversation irrelevant. Their work demands consideration on its own terms, regardless of it being conceived by an artist trained as a jeweler, ceramicist, painter or sculptor.
Zilber structures the book into four chapters, each which looks at this art from a specific viewpoint. Starting with The Object in Flux, she lays the groundwork for the premise of the show. The next three chapters, The Re-tooled Object, The Performative Object, and The Immersive Object, profile the artists and their work. The consistent use of the word “object” is a clue to the perspective Zelber brings to the discussion. The word object is often use by curators of decorative arts when referring to works in their field. In contrast, it would be unusual for an academic with expertise in sculpture to refer to a three dimensional piece made for a gallery setting as an object.
What Zilber seems to understand is that there are many ways to navigate the art world and all perspectives are equally valid. In the chapter, The Re-tooled Object, she writes, “The conventional understanding of craft objects emphasizes an artist’s mastery of complicated and transformative material practices, which are often tied in some way to traditions of making by hand. Yet, as much as craft is centered in the hand, it is also centered in the tool.”
This point is often the focus of the art/craft debate. Yet Zilber explains that a concern for material and fabrication is not an end in itself. The work in this book demonstrates that a craft person can be as thoughtful and concept driven as any other artist.
The following chapters further develop this premise. They include performance pieces, installations, works addressing social justice and environmental issues, as well as art inspired by materials and new technology. While each artist profiled has a distinct aesthetic, they all rely on the careful manipulation of material to transform their ideas into form.
Crafted: Objects in Flux, is a well-designed book that offers an expanded view of contemporary art. Illustrated with over 130 photographs, it is visually engaging. In the exhibition she curated and the book that supports it, Zilber has brought together a group of artists who transcend expectations and challenge assumptions.
By Scott Rothstein