Subversion and irony abound in works from the Crafts Council collection by Grayson Perry and others
I’m not supposed to be here. The Naughton Gallery’s Hidden Agenda exhibition – the flagship exhibition of Craft NI's August Craft Month – doesn’t open until tomorrow. Nevertheless, I am invited in and whisked around the gallery at dizzying pace, flitting like a butterfly from piece to piece.
And, really, this is the wrong way to go about this exhibition, a fine collection that should be properly savoured. Travelling from the Crafts Council permanent collection in London, Hidden Agenda features works by various artists bonded together by a social and political message. Subversion and irony abound.
Stephen Dixon’s 'Their Finest Hour' (2004), named for Churchill’s Battle of Britain speech, is an earthenware work in the shape of a petrol can. It is scribbled with war references, both classical and modern, the word 'raw' rising like a welt across the glaze is an inversion of that word, a knowing and bitter reference to Blair’s Labour government using the phrase to justify their motives behind the war in Iraq in 2003.
Michael Marriot’s 'Prototype XL1 Chair' (1991), built from found oak timber and tea chest plywood, is beautifully made self-assembly furniture. Designed to be affordable and easily produced pieces, they are flat pack furniture made from packaging, which is often far more wasteful and resource saturated than the furniture it protects. (Sadly lacking is the detail of unused, leftover plastic screws or a forlorn, plastic scrotum full of Allen keys.)
Doug Jones’ 'Generation' (2013) sees 54 casts of chicken feet individually finished by Jones and a team of workers in a bronze foundry in South China. Juggling with concepts of fair trade and ethics, it is an oddly charming piece.
The chicken’s feet are angles, so that no matter where you are standing one is always looking right at you – you tend to fill in the rest of the chicken with your imagination, and when you do it looks rather like a chicken cocktail party. Chicken feet are a popular snack in Asia, consumed daily by millions. There is an inversion here, a promotion to the level of statuary for these invisible animals and their all too edible extremities.
'Hundreds and Thousands' by Angela O’Kelly (1999), is an elegant, sculptural torque made from hundreds circular cut-outs from the Financial Times and meticulously strung together, the ends silver-gilded.
The compressed paper takes on an extraordinary colour, like bone, or even wood, as if the paper were attempting to return to the long, clean limbs of a silver birch. Coiling sinuously around the neck, it’s difficult to dispel the image of a yoke as well, the burden of commerce contained within those pages.
'Mad Kid’s Bedroom Wall Pot' (1996), by Grayson Perry, is a coil-built ceramic, gaudy with enamel transfers and platinum lustre, scribbled scraffito drawings and hand written texts, photo transfers. It tells the story of the titular 'mad kid', through the tangled heap of his bedroom, his provincial otherness and the means of his delivery: 'I was a mad kid and now I aint, I got out cause I could paint.'
Turner Prize winner Perry has called himself a poor potter and, indeed, this piece is a bit lumpy and off-kilter, but it is a gorgeous object, a glazed scrap-book in a delicate shade of cerulean.
Paul Scott’s tersely titled 'A Willow for Ai Weiwei, Wen Tao, Liu Zhenggang, Zhang Jinsong, Hu Mingfen', from his Scott’s Cumbrian Blue(s) series (2012), features a partially erased willow platter (c 1840).
Scott has erased all of the traditional figures from a Willow Pattern platter, alluding to the disappearance of the Chinese artist. But Ai Weiwei himself features in their place as a white silhouette on the bridge, dropping a Han dynasty urn, a reference to a previous, controversial installation. Also depicted are Sunflower seeds scattered around the platter – a reference to Wei's 2010 Tate Modern piece.
'D.I.Y.' (1992), by Lynn Setterington, is a quilt fashioned from cotton, polyester wadding but depicting a selection of power tools, a conceit informed by the artist’s efforts at home renovation. Not the most 'multi-layered' (now there’s an irony) piece in the exhibition it is, necessarily, a comforting addition to it.
Michelle Walker’s 1999 work 'Remember Me' is a rather tougher, more subversive piece of quilt-making. Made from plastic and wire wool, it shows eight repeated motifs of the breast cancer campaign’s folded ribbon, but here it has sloughed off the perky pink and displays the twisted cloth in black or grey. It is constructed of grittier and more abrasive fabrics. There is a simplicity to the message and one that is all the more powerful because of it.
Hidden Agenda is a fabulous, meaty exhibition of things – crafted things, made by hands out of stuff – a perfect, glittering collection, brimming with ideas. These scattered and diverse objects are tangible representations of a negotiation with the society we live in, talking it down from a third floor window before it jumps. Luckily, the artists featured are pretty persuasive.