Craftwest Gallery, Perth and Moores Building, Fremantle 4 - 26 July 1998 Centre for Contemporary Craft, Customs House, Sydney 12 September - 11 October 1998
The title Past Tense/Future Perfect, coined by Craftwest Executive Director Linda Browne, offers an optimistic reference point for the reception of this ground-breaking exhibition of national craft to be presented in Perth and Sydney. Its linguistic resonance proved an appropriate one for a positioning of contemporary Australian craft. Despite distant roots, language is in a state of constant evolution; words and meanings are modified through usage and transgress across time, cultures, regional dialect and contexts. There are obvious parallels with the world of visual culture and in particular the crafts, and this is reflected in this exhibition.
In the past decade craft could be said to have reached something of a definitional impasse. Craft's proximity to functionality, wearability and ornamentation has been both its appeal and its nemesis in the construction of a language around it, an audience and a market, especially when it traverses the gallery environment and the product showroom or department store, or features in the populist fashion or lifestyle magazine and the theoretical design journal all at once.
Technical proficiency has been and remains a benchmark, though the thrill of great design is ultimately more reliant upon inspired utilisation of that skill and, less tangible and more contentious, the investing of work with meaning.
It is evident that contemporary makers, as represented in Past Tense/Future Perfect are aware of the latitude their practice currently enables them. They look, sometimes reverently and sometimes irreverently, to influences and issues such as consumerism and waste, environment, architecture, nature and culture. They exploit almost every conceivable material from the traditional such as ceramic, glass, wood and metals to found objects, stitched grass and seeds, to the more recent synthetics, fibre optics and digital media.
Western Australian artist Kate McMillan offers pig intestine encased in resin resting on soap holders in a formation that dots islands of synthetic green. Perhaps this suggests lawn or water and perhaps it does not. Her ambiguous vessels in jelly mould shapes could momentarily be likened to lily pads or as quickly assume the status of precious jewels of glass, or simply shaped resin on rubber. Entitled The Apperance of Transparency she cleverly provokes such illusions or delusions thus destabilising the base of her crafted object-making.
Shaelene Murray from Sydney transforms a Deco floor polisher into an object boasting a contemporary frenzy of illuminated fibre optics and calls itLustre Envy . Elizabeth Kelly, currently based in Adelaide presents a parade of fetishistic figures that turn out to be manipulated commercial toys and Rebekah Fogaty combines plastic and sterling silver in deceptively simple trinket rings, Try Your Luck. Their impact astutely addressing aspects of gambling, consumerism and a throwaway society. Blanche Tilden straddles the industrial with the precious in her Bike Chain Necklace of titanium and glass.
The exhibition stems from an inclusive position on contemporary crafts and while it confronts and confounds through such combinations of improbable materials and concepts, it gives room also to an inspired array of production work or custom pieces from chic stackable containers in anodised metal and rubber from Bridie Lander to a laminated wood ottoman from Luis Nheu, and a detailed wood storage box, Slidshow by Brett Hope amongst many others. Meticulous hand-work with grass produces revealing work by Kate Campbell - Pope and Joyce Winsley. There is a lot of finesse and a lot of energy in this survey and there is frequently work that seduces primarily by its exquisiteness of form and surface.
Just when one discerns some thread or meaning running through several works and is tempted to declare a trend or significance you happen upon a work that upturns it completely. Collectively it does suggest a strength of self-determination on the part of emergent craft artists. Given Australia's propensity to delineate rather than conflate its states and territories, in spite of federation, there is also a temptation to seek out nuances and characteristics that reflect difference and commonality across state boundaries. This elicits the impact of notable senior craft practitioners upon student generations, or the effect of specific climatic and environmental conditions upon the exploitation and concentration of ideas or motifs, or the implications of cultural heritage. This is all of relevance, but more overwhelming in Past Tense/Future Perfect is the enduring exaltation of materials, the integration of technological capability and a pervasive committment to progress either through building upon tradition or by subverting it.
No single exhibition can be definitively representative or prescriptive of a practice so diverse in its intent and manifestations, nor can it aim or be expected to be comprehensively satisfying. One frustration that is brought to bear within the excitement of this uncharted territory is the diversity and unevenness of how artists contextualise or present their work to enhance impact and understanding. Some ignore it or do something tentative or tokenistic and others take control of it. This is an area that requires thinking and attention. Perhaps because this is the first time such an emergent craft exhibition has been ventured, some artists overlooked how their work would or could reside in an encompassing survey.
Regardless, a degree of risk in exposure of young careers can be worth a lot in the invigoration of ideas, dialogue, exchange, audience and, in this instance, in the construction of a sense of national craft development. It is a critical reminder that it is the artists and the work that lead the way and create the path for dialogue, infrastructure, writing and policy, and not the other way around.
That a national exhibition of emerging craft practice has been embraced and supported by divergent partners throughout and across State infrastructures, marks an achievement. Past Tense/Future Perfect offers a lively state of affairs for Australian contemporary craft and design. It signifies that through this project a need is being fulfilled or, at least being nourished toward a future that, if not perfect, is flourishing.