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Thursday, May 9, 2013


Surely the best contemporary show I saw all year was SlowArt at Sweden’s Nationalmuseum in Stockholm. A compilation of stunning objects from both the craft and fine art fields, the exhibition was fresh, captivating, inspiring. 

I am very picky about crafts; I can’t abide what I call “gift shop” crafts—all those striped wood cutting boards, Memphis-inspired knickknacks, machine-part lawn ornaments and the like, but I love crafts that are rooted in ancient traditions. I also love contemporary art that has a craft element to it.

The artists featured in SlowArt share a deliberate, handcrafted approach—an intrinsic part of their creative process. Producing the kind of work they do is a meditative exercise, often involving monotonous, repetitive action and sometimes, even pain. Each of the artists in the show use materials generally associated with crafts: pottery, weaving, jewelry making, the difference being that craft artists produce work that is functional, whereas fine art artists produce work, some of which suggest functionality, but is really meant to be looked at.  
An example of the latter happens to be my favorite piece: Necklace by Helena Sandström. Made with pearls and eggshells strung onto gold wire it’s a fantasy of a necklace. The impossibility of the piece is what I love about it. Such audacity. I can only imagine the hours and hours that went into making it. The many failed attempts at breaking the eggshells just so, and then the challenge of affixing them onto the wire with the pearls. It’s both funny and edgy. Looking at it, one can sense the frustration and commitment that went into it. A metaphor for life. 

I also loved Renata Francescon’s Sub Rosa. A yummy confection of solids and voids, it’s both ethereal and weighty. Francescon uses her hands to form her creamy porcelain rose petals leaving her fingerprints in the clay. It’s tactile and elegant.

Pasi Välimaa refers to his finely executed embroidery piece on view as “luxury manufacturing” on account of the fact he worked on it for so long (a year) making sure it was allowed to develop at its own pace without the pressure of needing to finish it. The black thread on white linen is simple and austere and has that wonderful, almost childlike, handmade quality one sees in classic Marimekko textiles.

Taking a much more opulent approach, Suzy Strindberg’s landscape, Embroidery, is a lushly rendered piece composed of minute stitches. It verges into the three-dimensional in parts, so heavily is it embroidered.

Using fiberglass mixed into porcelain clay (a material she developed) Jane Reumert’s Snöuggla (Snow Owl) appears to be made with the feathers of the bird its title references. It’s a beautiful, almost elegiac piece.  

Sinuous and sensual, Eva Hild’s Keramiska former Nr2 (Ceramic Shapes No 2) co-opts its interior space making it a major player in the piece. The smooth white of the outside shape contrasts wonderfully to the blackness within. 

Gunilla Lagerhem Ullberg uses actual petals and leaves to create kaleidoscope arrangements. The colors are muted—the petals in most cases, are nearly translucent—and the arrangements are so inventive that even though they may sound trite, in her hands they aren’t.

While in Sweden and Denmark I was blown away by the traditional Scandinavian woven rugs that I saw. Tribal looking, they reminded me somewhat of Navajo rugs with interesting designs, sophisticated color pairings and vegetable dyes. I was amazed I hadn’t ever heard of them before. Malou Andersson’s Spär (Tracks), a wintry hued piece featuring animal and human footprints (and ski tracks) puts a contemporary spin on a traditional craft.

Another example of weaving is Annika Ekdahl’s tapestry Road Movie (verdure): Visiting Mom. Featuring a weird combination of animals, plants and objects that defy gravity and one-point perspective, Ekdahl’s work is enigmatic and ancient. Ekdahl produces one square meter per month, dyeing only a few ounces of wool at a time, knowing the exact shade can never be replicated. This ensures that something random will affect the piece, a welcome note of unexpectedness in a process (tapestry weaving) that is mapped out way in advance.

A completely different effect was achieved by Irene Agbaje in her tapestry Binary. An abstract work of shimmering squares that seemed to both bleed into one another and hover above, it reminded me of fabric I’ve seen from Southeast Asia and also evoked the work of Ross Bleckner.  

I loved the simplicity of Tore Svensson’s Bowl. Iron with a prefect rectangular broken line of gold, it looked both delicate and strong: a valuable treasure belonging to a Viking king.

I also admired Cecilia Levy’s bowl, Red made of torn paper. It’s a beautiful piece that required skill and patience to be transformed into a perfectly formed three-dimensional object from a one-dimensional sheet of paper.

I have seen text on paper used before and it’s a look I like. Janna Syvänoja also uses it, stringing slips of paper from an encyclopedia onto wire to create her handsome snake-like necklace. The text, visible at certain points, forms a speckled pattern. Where it’s not visible, the necklace is the ivory shade of the blank parts of the paper. Made from manmade materials it looks natural, organic.

Helena Hörstedt’s raw silk and leather dress, Broken Shadow made quite a statement. A remarkable creation, it recalls the work of Alexander McQueen. But though fierce, it does not possess the feminine sexiness of McQueen’s haute couture numbers. But then again Hörstedt sewed the whole thing herself, he did not.

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