Less than a decade ago, the question of whether an object was fine art or craft was not a debate. The lines were clearly drawn, and things such as pottery, ceramics, weaving and woodworking - no matter how finely done - were not art. Now, with each passing year, these areas are bleeding into one another in more interesting ways.
Two shows at the Boise Art Museum illustrate this evolution: "Crafting a Continuum: Rethinking Contemporary Art," which opens May 16, and "Modern and Contemporary Ceramics: Kay Hardy and Gregory Kaslo Collection," which is running now through March 29, 2015.
You can see and celebrate both May 16 at the opening party for "Crafting a Continuum."
Over the past decade - as our everyday lives become more virtual - the popularity of handcrafted, unique items has soared. That popularity has helped what once was considered only fare for outdoor art festivals to break through museum doors.
Bringing these worlds together adds a new dimension to both, says Heather Lineberry, associate director and senior curator at Arizona State University Art Museum, where "Crafting a Continuum" originated.
"It's a time when both craft and contemporary artists are drawing across their fields and disciplines in order to accomplish their vision," she says.
The objects that fill BAM's main galleries feel both familiar and unique. Made of wood, fiber and clay, they hold the space as easily as bronze sculptures or abstract paintings.
That's part of their appeal.
"These pieces come with a history of relationship with daily life," Lineberry says. "When I see people in the gallery with objects, you can see they understand them. There's a direct connection to the body."
Both shows draw from our everyday experience; we've all picked up a pot or a basket. Then the shows turn the tables with pieces such as Jarbas Lopes' "Cicloviaera," a bicycle covered in hand-woven natural fiber vines.
CRAFTING A CONTINUUM
The museum at Arizona State is a leader in craft-as-art thinking. It has a deep collection across the spectrum of fine-art craft. Part of the formation of this show was the curators' desire to take stock of their collection and to take a stand in the greater art world about the importance of craft as art, Lineberry says.
The exhibit is divided into three areas: fiber, ceramics and wood. Many of the pieces were created in the 1970s and '80s. The rest are from the past 15 years. Many of the younger artists work in both traditional and digital mediums. They use computers to design a piece or research ideas, Lineberry says. "That makes them somewhat hybrids, not just traditional handmade craft," she says.
They also are returning to ideas of social practice - such as the idea of a quilting bee.
Artist Margarita Cabrera teaches refugees her techniques as part of her process. Then she collaborates with them to create fabric and clay sculptures. Dutch artists Claydies - Karen Kjældgaard-Larsen and Tine Broksø - create porcelain pinch pots while blindfolded, and often do it in performance.
The growing popularity of handcrafted items is causing a kind of renaissance in design, especially in Scandinavia, where design and fine art intersect regularly, says Peter Held, director of ceramics at ASU and co-curator of the exhibit.
"Younger artists are using models more and creating limited production that can be distributed in new ways rather than through a gallery," Held says.
CLAY LED THE WAY
"I joke and say it's happening because the art world heard the sound of cash registers," says ceramics historian and writer Garth Clark, who spoke in Boise earlier this month. "And that's not entirely untrue. Art dealers won't bother with work they can't sell, and the demand for ceramics has grown dramatically. Now, the field has been transformed."
Ceramics started this evolution about 15 years ago when a Jeff Koons ceramic sculpture of "Michael Jackson with Bubbles" sold for $7.5 million.
"It startled the entire art world," he says. "And it was an edition (one in a series) - so not unique. For a ceramic piece to fetch such a high price is no longer unusual."
The "Modern and Contemporary Ceramics" collection from Boise's Hardy and Kaslo shows this transition beautifully.
You'll find traditional functional pots, such as pieces Boise State University professor John Takahara and renowned ceramicist Jun Kaneko did as students. In the same display case you can see how far it has come. Jim Kraft's sculpture "Lichen Keep" is made of bricklike pieces and cut and torn clay to create a basketlike vessel. Nearby, you'll find Bean Finneran's sculpture made of hundreds of individual rolled clay tendrils arranged into a shape like pick-up sticks.
It's often the ideas behind the work that anchor them in the museum world, says Boise Art Museum senior curator Sandy Harthorn.
Master potter Rick Dillingham worked for many years at the Santa Fe, N.M., Laboratory of Anthropology restoring Native American pots. In his own work, he began creating, breaking and then "restoring" his pots. In the last series he did - while dying of AIDS in the early 1990s - he transcended the idea of a functional object.
"It's where the pot is no longer the utilitarian item," Harthorn says. "It's come into the realm of something that is emotional and conceptual - ideas of going on to death and leaving the vessel of the body."
Not every pot belongs in a museum, Lineberry says.
"But neither does every painting or everything an artist makes," she says. "That's where the power of curation comes in to connect the powerful combination of material, manipulation and content."