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Out of the ordinary
Lucinda Holmes talks to artist Susan Collis about her practice and her work in the exhibition Out of the Ordinary: Spectacular Craft at the Victoria and Albert Museum.
Out of the Ordinary: Spectacular Craft is a jointly organised by the V&A and the Crafts Council. Alongside Susan Collis, artists Olu Amoda, Catherine Bertola, Annie Cattrell, Naomi Filmer, Lu Shengzhong, Yoshihiro Suda and Anne Wilson exhibit works that cross the traditionally perceived boundaries between art and craft. How does the production of an individually crafted object sit in a world of mass production and the loss of the original? Where does Collis site her practice in the territories of craft and art?
On entering the newly designed Porter Gallery you first see a series of photographs of empty artists studios showing their tools and working area. Inside each artist had a distinct space. On entering Collis's area you could easily assume that this space was in the process of being prepared for the exhibition, with a paint splattered table and dust sheets, and a wall marked with Rawl plugs and holes where nails used to be. On closer inspection you realise that what looked like casually spilt paint is carefully inlaid mother of pearl or lovingly embroidered thread. Screws are actually white gold housing jewels and the nail holes are black diamonds. I enjoyed searching out her work and admired its skilful execution.
Collis doesn't come from a craft background, she studied sculpture at Chelsea and the Royal College, but she employs craft processes. In 2002 Susan Collis won the Jerwood Drawing Student Prize and has had solo shows at Seventeen Gallery, Beaconsfield, and Aspex Gallery. Collis's practice crosses into many disciplines, drawing, craft, sculpture and installation.
Her practice brings together extremes: the cheap and throwaway with the highly precious, the casual and instantaneous with the meticulously laboured. The precious materials she uses have no symbolic value but raise the status of everyday objects. Collis also questions her own identity as an artist, juxtaposing the hero figure of artists such as Jackson Pollock (paint splashes) with a figure who is instead involved with mundane and painstaking craft processes.
I wanted to know more about the motivation behind her work. She told me, that whilst at the Royal College, she read Naomi Kline's No Logo. What especially interested Collis was how desirable mass produced objects such as trainers have no history of their making, they have a "kind of aura" as if they have "just appeared from heaven." Not only do we as buyers have limited information of how they are made and the conditions of their production, but that they appear to be made without duration, to be instantaneous. Collis's work "highlights the hidden labour" that goes into installing an exhibition.
At this year's Zoo Art Fair I discovered a new piece by Collis, a copy of a cheap laundry bag. This time not made of jewels but with the commonplace biro and paper. It took three months to make. Collis was attracted to the "economic connotations" of the bags and the biro, adding value to them through the labour of production, "time is a material."
Collis sees her works as "being like ghosts of other works that have taken place." The Rawl plugs left after another work has been removed; a memorial to the now absent works.
What especially interests me about Collis' work is the transformation of the space in which they are shown. They are discrete objects that make an installation. Collis is interested in creating a situation, which shares with the viewer, the often ignored, and the peripheral within the exhibition space. Collis at the same time produces highly crafted valuable commodities. Collis likes the viewer to search out her work, interrogating the space, with the help of a map.
Maintaining a level of intimate control is important to her, as she wants each piece to be crafted to a very high standard. Collis makes decisions about her work during production. She comments that in Cursed With a Soul, a large table "I was able to compose it. Looking at the space I leave in-between the marks. Wanting it to look believable but also making compositional decisions." However her work is not just driven by the desire the trick the audience but to produce something visually pleasing and skilful. To me crafting, the skilfully handmade, is now a readable element within art practice, something borrowed from craft.
Finally, Collis comments that exhibiting at the V&A is obviously a great step for her career as an artist, as it creates many more opportunities. However this brings with it the new difficulty of being in a position to select opportunities which are the most suitable for her own practice, prompting her to consider what it is she wants to communicate to what audience.
Lucinda Holmes is an artist based in London
Out of the Ordinary: Spectacular Craft is at the Victoria and Albert Museum until 17 February 2008. www.vam.ac.uk
Shanghai based artist/writer 陆欣达 also runs http://contemporaryartshanghai.com
First published: a-n.co.uk November 2007
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