No one likes being told what to do, but what if the instruction comes in the form of an invitation? That very question is addressed in The Tool at Hand, a traveling exhibition currently on view at Houston Center for Contemporary Craft, organized by the Milwaukee Art Museum in collaboration with the Chipstone Foundation, which promotes decorative arts scholarship.
The foundation’s former curator Ethan W. Lasser – now an associate curator of American art at Harvard Art Museums – invited 16 artists in the US and the UK to choose one tool and use it to create a new work of art. The exhibition will travel to museums across the United States, including The Philadelphia Art Alliance and the Museum of Contemporary Craft in Portland, Oregon.
The invitation came in the form of a short video wherein a narrator asks artists to consider specific questions during their creative process in relation to the tool they have chosen to use – for example, do you use the tool in the way it was intended? Do you ever find the tool to be a limitation? Do you ever loan your tools? The exhibition is supplemented by short artist-created videos that demonstrate how they used their tool to create the works on view.
The artists’ RSVPs vary, from woodworker David Gates’s use of not only one tool but one material – a saw and a plank of wood – to sculptor/furniture-maker Gord Peteran’s interpretative decision to display a tool he adores – an antique planer – rather than use it to create something new (unless you consider the display itself to be a “useful” act), to Chad Curtis, who chose digital radiation level data as his illustrative tool.
Mark Lindquist revisited his austere stacked sculptures from the 1980s in order to spark new ideas that would adhere to the exhibition’s rules, creating Dowel Bowl, a sunburst-like bowl made from stacked dowel rods and one tool – a wood glue applicator. Tavs Jorgenson, acknowledging and embracing the fact that several tools are necessary for his craft, also created a bowl-like form; however, his material of choice was a glass disc, which required him to incorporate “reconfigurable tooling” (one tool that can act as a mold for various forms) as well as a glass cutter, heat, and more, in order to achieve the effect he desired.
Whether the artists in The Tool at Hand limited themselves to a single tool or decided to focus on one tool among several that are necessary to their creative process, every resulting object in the exhibition emphasizes the interdependent relationship between artists and their materials. Any circumvention or avoidance of the exhibition’s theme and/or parameters further underscores the importance of an artist’s self-driven instruction – and inspiration – rather than their fulfillment of an assignment.
Challenging the idea of using tools to create something new, ceramicist Caroline Slotte employed a utility knife and dental drill to coax a plastic mug into looking like a ceramic one in her piece Waiting for a Miracle, even going so far as to carve the ceramic manufacture’s name into the plastic cup’s underside. In order to more fully mimic a glazed ceramic surface, Slotte rubs pigment into the scrapes, holes and other distress marks she has created with her tools.
Beth Lipman’s sculptural still-life artworks are normally quite pristine, exacting, and just plain gorgeous. The piece she created for The Tool at Hand is aesthetically successful in other ways, illustrating the futility of following instructions to the letter. She offers no poetic explanation of her tool choice or process, as the other artists did, but instead empties tube after tube of caulk to create “Gift Bowl,” a mass of objects fused by this gluey, gooey substance.
Enamelist Helen Carnac made prints of found objects and metalsmith Lisa Gralnick made paintings of her tools, inclusions that conflate (or confuse) the exhibition’s aims, and, in turn, makes them superfluous. In cases where The Tool at Hard artists do literally address the aims of the exhibition, the effects of the imposed exercise on the artist’s practice is dubious. For example, Liz Collins already focuses her creativity on one tool – a knitting machine – pushing it to its limits. It is unfortunate that her piece on view, Relentless, does not accurately represent the rich, performative aspects of her textile works.
Do artists and/or audiences benefit from being told what to do? Do curatorial mandates and artists’ demonstrations result in notable works of art? While it is commendable to seek out new methods and tools in order to create what could prove to be a forward-thinking exhibition, and while it may be enticing for artists to accept the invitation, this specific approach seems intentionally to overlook what artists are doing of their own volition and the trends they are setting.
Ironically, the show employs a primary tool of its own – video documentation – in order to craft an exhibition that does not include art forms that also rely heavily on documentation, specifically literary and performing arts; and these are intriguing to think of in terms of one-tool-usage: the pen, body, voice, etc. As a result, The Tool at Hand runs the risk of minimizing the role of artists in cultural production by acknowledging them primarily through association with conventional methods and their ability to interpret a narrow theme.
Nancy Zastudil is an itinerant curator and writer who can’t seem to stay away from Houston.