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Sam Hall Kaplan

Provocative 'New Spirit' in U.K. Folk Art

February 13, 1988|Sam Hall Kaplan

If you haven't noticed, designs in our high-tech, computer-driven society have become slicker and slicker these days; perhaps easier to handle, but also easier to throw away or walk away from.

It seems almost everything--from ceramics, furniture and furnishings, to cars and even houses and office buildings--is being produced for the most part by computer-programmed machines that ingest materials, manipulate them according to market studies, and disgorge style. So much for honest artistic expression.

To be sure, what is generally produced is functional and almost certainly fashionable. It is apparent that the designers who tell the programmers what to tell the machines to do carefully study the trendy publications to see which way the fashion trade winds are blowing. (That the publications are being manipulated by a new breed of photo publicists is another matter for discussion elsewhere.)

How some young British designers-cum-craftspeople and artists have reacted, and perhaps overreacted, to this current drift in design is very much on display now through March 13 in a provocative exhibit at the Craft and Folk Art Museum, 5814 Wilshire Blvd.

Labeled "The New Spirit in British Craft and Design," the exhibit is very New Wave, and contains an array of jewelry, ceramics, glass, textiles, furniture and furnishings that have been handcrafted out of scrap material salvaged from the refuse bins of the "old tech" of England's dying smokestack industries.

The objects tend to be coarse and awkward. There is a chaise longue of hammered scrap metal too hard to lie on; chairs of fiberboard, odd pieces of stoves and twisted copper piping too frail, small or uncomfortable to sit on; a mirror encrusted with wire mesh, bedsprings and scrap wood that does not reflect well; a drinking glass and bowl too heavy to use; and hats woven from garbage pail liners that one would hesitate to put on the head.

The objects also are compelling, most of them too well made and imaginative to classify as punk junkyard creations thrown together to simply mock the current vogue of cool modernist and post-modernist designs.

The encrusted, totemic archeological assemblage crafted by Sue Golden, which can be seen on the first floor of the exhibit, is a wondrous sculpture in its own right, hinting of African art forms come to roost in urban England. Look for the keys and clutch plates. Also engaging is her chair, painted a bright red and decorated with twigs and African bristles, with the seat supported by recycled spindles--all seemingly waiting to be used in some sort of tribal ritual, in London.

Golden and some of the other young British designers represented in the exhibit are attempting in a quasi-ethnic way to invest their objects with symbols and meaning, qualities that have been lost in the current mainstream of design, according to curator Laurie Beth Kalb.

"Recycled and uncomfortable with a nod toward the primitive, these objects call attention to themselves and speak against the anonymity of mass-production . . . and the mediocrity and overrefinement of traditional crafts," Kalb adds in comments that have been silk-screened onto explanatory sheet-metal panels.

The panels--in addition to being an immense help to interpreting the objects presented--are very much in the spirit of the exhibit. Both the panels and the exhibit were designed by an inventive Henk Elenga. Less helpful, unfortunately, is the catalogue prepared by the British Crafts Council, a splatter of letters, photographs and colors that is hard to read and follow.

Among the engaging objects on the museum's third floor, which tries valiantly but just does not overcome its space constraints, is a fanciful forged-and-welded-steel chair, with arms in the form of wings that move and operate by cable a small, multidirectional radar dish crowning the creation. The chair, crafted by John Mills, was inspired by the English comic-book hero Dan Dare. A little nostalgia and wit presented with some theatricality is always welcome in an exhibit.

"The exhibit is a little different for us; offbeat and iconoclastic," museum director Patrick Ela said. "But it certainly makes you think about the nature of craft and design, and where it might be headed."

The exhibit is being presented in conjunction with the UK/LA Festival, thanks in part to the Contemporary Crafts Council, Elaine Attias and the Directors' Circle of the museum and Schweppes. The museum is open Tuesdays through Sundays, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., with admission $1.50 for adults and $1 for seniors.

Information: (213) 937-5544.

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