I recently had a copy of Gary Griffin and Erika Stefanutti’s article “Remaking Material” handed to me. It was a fine read, but first struck me as being rather obvious and not particularly helpful: of course materials have their own languages and implications; of course one cannot assume neutrality in media choices; of course the tensions between concept and physicality lead to questions about “making things and then only speaking of the idea of things.” Locating/manifesting a physical object within a web of histories, cultures, and connotations is the single largest challenge of making for me, and I would go as far as to say it is one of the defining problems of this post-post-post-modern era of art.
Then I read the date. The article had been published in the magazine Metalsmith...in 1994. The authors were writing nearly twenty years ago. While not a landscape I’ve ever inhabited as an adult, it was a little jarring to realize that there must have been a time before craft’s widespread critical awakening (not to mention facing the reality of the Clement Greenberg school of thought, which proclaimed the white cube gallery as a neutral space and the experience of art as a purely visual one). While I am definitely not suggesting that Greenberg's modernism was the dominate critical model in the mid-90s, it is still difficult to understand how recent our current understanding of craft is (and how it continues to evolve). I read the article as a call for awareness not only of the conceptual, but of the physical, material nature of making and the concepts which are rooted in that physicality. The case study of lead I took as an example of how the material itself carried a history, and how it could be embraced as more than simply a soft, heavy, dark-colored metal to be used as a synonym for heavy or for its physical properties. Instead, it also has connections to alchemy and poison, backyard casting and fishing.
Still, I must take exception to the presumption that embracing the conceptual aspects of materials will somehow make the negotiation of things vs. ideas-of-things easier. On the contrary. We have opened Pandora’s Box. Every damn thing becomes a node in a multivalent, networked web of possible meanings that threatens to strangle work before it even happens, crushing it under the weight of its own potentiality. I, for one, have developed some sort of quantum anxiety, where the responsibility of collapsing all the possible future works which could be formed from a given idea into a single, observable outcome causes a sort of paralyzing panic. In the end, too many things remain unmade. How do physicists deal with the pressure? Isn’t the observation of particles’ quantum states a sort of murder of possibility? Do scientists take a lot of Xanax? But I have already digressed too far.
Griffin and Stefanutti have little (comforting) to say about how to deal with the problem of too much self-awareness. They leave it up to the individual artist to determine and define their own ideology, stating that “the difference in the meaningful value of these media resides not in the materials themselves but in metalsmiths' ability and willingness to perceive and articulate it. Each maker's belief system determines whether or not they recognize that all materials have "memory'' and a past and present life.” Fair enough. For all that it is truly the only way, sometimes the “you will find the answer within, grasshopper” aspect of art gets really, really old. But then again, the defining problem of a generation of artists wouldn’t be a problem if it wasn’t a pain in the ass.