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Laura Mansfield is an independent curator and writer. Curating Touchstones’ forthcoming show Ambiguous Implements (21 April – 30 June 2018) which re-thinks the tools we use for eating, grooming, cooking and cleaning, the selected artists have employed and subverted traditional craft techniques.

Each artist has reframed existing tools in new sculptural assemblages, or given seemingly banal objects new functions and effects. We chat to Laura to find out more about the upcoming exhibition.

Could you tell our readers a bit more about the exhibition Ambiguous Implements and what the show is aiming to present?

Ambiguous Implements is a touring exhibition that brings together 18 different practitioners from the fields of contemporary art, craft and design. The exhibition brings together works that playfully reconsider familiar objects – the artists in the show have reformed and reconsidered familiar domestic tools – cutlery, crockery, kitchenware, or they have represented the familiar materials of the domestic sphere in sculptural assemblages.

The project grew from my introduction to Rachael Colley and also through conversations with contemporary art practitioners I had previously worked with such as Daniel Fogarty. Talking with Rachael, she was really keen to show her work in a different context, outside of an established craft area, I felt that her approach to working was very similar to other practices that I had experienced in a visual art realm. Together with Nuala Clooney we decided to develop a project in which we would share our different areas of knowledge and bring practitioners together whose work we felt shared an approach and interest in traditional craft methods, whether that be through employing craft techniques, experimenting with traditional materials such as ceramics, or bronze in very contemporary ways or in making work that used craft processes but with contemporary technology.

Kate Farley’s Construct Drawings and Rachel Colley’s Spoons. Courtesy of Julia Nottingham Photography
Kate Farley’s Construct Drawings and Rachel Colley’s Spoons. Courtesy of Julia Nottingham Photography

The title of Ambiguous Implements reflects this interest in a blurring of boundaries between the distinctions of arts or crafts practices and also between what we view as familiar in our everyday environments and what can be represented as unexpected and uncertain. Using the everyday as a framework the familiar domestic items engage a viewer with an aspect of their recognisable form or use, yet the added uncertainty, presents a myriad of potential other uses – practical or fantastical. Kate Farley – a textile artist whose work is in the exhibition shared a paper with me in which she uses the phrase “A familiar object provides an unfamiliar forum for thinking”, I know Kate uses this very much in relation to design and developing new works, rethinking how the familiar can be restructured. For me this phrase also signals the potential “other” to the everyday, by that I mean the slide into the fantastical, experimental and uncertain.

As a touring exhibition, how have you responded to each space when installing the works? Has each space made you think differently about any of the works on display? And do you think you will respond differently to the space at Touchstones?

For me, curating is thinking about staging or facilitating an encounter between an artwork, a space and a viewer, as such each iteration of the exhibition has entailed a very different display. The different spaces used have had their own size constraints and varying contexts – for example B&B project space in Folkestone is a very small old shop. Matt Rowe who runs the space installed a series of shelves in the large bay windows so that the primary means of display is placing works in these very public window cabinets. In this context the work in the windows took on a different resonance, and had a very different relationship to the audience of passers-by, compared to that of a gallery context where the audience has specifically come to the space expecting to view artworks.

Vittoria Street Gallery was in the atrium of Birmingham City School of Jewellery, it’s a space that is constantly passed through by students, staff and the public so there were a lot of considerations over the security and safety of the work – everything had to be within a display cabinet. This, perhaps, more formal display, gave a suggestion of the museum cabinet with the familiar objects becoming akin to museum artifacts. The context of the School of Jewellery also brought a slightly different emphasis to the works with stronger questions around the materials and methods of their creation.

Installation shot at Vittoria Street Gallery School of Jewellery Birmingham City University. Courtesy of Julia Nottingham Photography
Installation shot at Vittoria Street Gallery School of Jewellery Birmingham City University. Courtesy of Julia Nottingham Photography

Folkestone and Birmingham were, in turn, dramatically different gallery spaces to the first installation at Roco in Sheffield, which was much more of a traditional white cube space. However, I was keen to introduce suggestion of the domestic beyond the simple display of the artworks in an effort to emphasise the familiarity present within the objects. For example, I installed a large curtain across one wall of the space to soften the interior and Rachael Colley and Nuala Clooney displayed their works on bespoke furniture, one item of which was somewhere between a bed and a table. I am excited by the space at Rochdale as it is a relatively large and contained room, meaning there is potential to try and create more of a distinct environment with the works, the viewer is not so much walking into another gallery but a room that has layers or echoes of the domestic – from the exhibition furniture, to the seating in the space and the arrangement of objects on shelves and tables.

There are a wide range of practitioners exhibiting in the show using various mediums to display a twist on the familiar. What can we expect to see in the exhibition that will bring new viewpoints on everyday objects in our domestic lives?

David Clarke’s work in the exhibition is a morphing or binding of two traditional forms of silver jugs, the simplicity of this act transforms the familiar into something very playful as well as slightly uncertain. Rachael Colley’s work uses discarded food waste as the basis for the materials, colours and forms of scoops, spoons and ladles – from strawberry died leather handles to cast avocado skins – what we eat with coming from the eaten and Maria Miltisi’s spanner works transform the practical associations of the tool into a decorative item of jewellery.

Rachael Colley, Avocado scoop spoon and pressed vegetable dyed leather. Courtesy of Andy Brown
Rachael Colley, Avocado scoop spoon and pressed vegetable dyed leather. Courtesy of Andy Brown.

The world of contemporary craft often crosses over into the art domain. How do you differentiate between artist and maker? And what separates or brings these roles together?

I am a little hesitant to give an answer to this as I think it is very difficult to place distinct divides between practices and the intention of the exhibition is to blur divisions or at least pose the very question you are asking. On a very basic level, however it is down to the practitioner – how they define themselves and the history, audience and context they engage with in their work. There is also a very different approach to education within art and craft courses and this is something that shapes an informs an individual’s approach to practice, for example there is a level of studied and learned technical skill within a craft based education that practitioners work with or against, but that is not to say that coming from a specific educational background fixes you within that discipline. I think it is important there is a freedom and flexibility to how a practitioner’s work from any field (art or craft) can draw upon different disciplines and develop into different contexts.

Where can we find out more about the exhibition and the artists on show?

Information on all the artists in the exhibition can be found on the project website. There is a great essay on the website by Melody Vaughan who responded to the installation in Sheffield. You can also follow the exhibition and see more images of the artist’s works on Instagram.