The below text explores the idea of Novelty in contemporary art as per the exhibition curated by myself and Josh Berry at Asylum, SE15 this weekend gone.


There’s a fine line between newness and novelty.  It’s a line that divides the illustrious and the new from the tacky. It separates the alluring from that which will last. This is the core of NOVELTY.

It’s a term that has come to mean the naff, cheaply made, disposable, but has its meaning rooted in the revolutionary, the new, the forward-looking. In contemporary art’s quest to create new things it walks a fine line, often falling unintentionally into the category of the kitsch.

This exhibition explores craftsmanship. It proposes that new works of art can have a lasting impact if they are well made. It suggests that the handmade is more valuable, but it questions our perception of the appearance of a hand-made object. It looks to innovative methods of making for creating impressive new works of art.

The exhibition raises questions about trends and turn over. It discusses originality, reconstitution and reproduction. It asks: how quickly is the art world reproducing content, and how much time do artists allow a work to be original before it is replicated as a recycled object?

NOVELTY looks to six forward-facing artists, who are expanding the potential of new art now, and houses them in their paradox – a disused chapel that is defined by its history – in the hope that it will shed some light on the new and the novel. As sculptors first and foremost, the principal way they do this is through a concern with the reconstitution of materials.

Josh Berry’s Untitled is a picture of reproduction: not only as a photograph does it reproduce an image of reality, but it refers knowingly to a significant moment in art history; that is when Marcel Duchamp plucked a urinal from its everyday context and put it before a selection panel for a contemporary art exhibition (run by the Society of Independent Artists, New York, 1917.) The object was recycled, its purpose shifted. It became the first found object to become an acclaimed work of art.

Berry shamelessly parodies Duchamp’s Fountain in his photograph. Piled up against a skip in East London, the artist captures the disused and disposed of ready-made. It is in this context, out of use as a waste-disposal unit, and as an art object, that Berry considers but then dismisses the ready-made, choosing to champion contemporary craftsmanship.

Kostas Synodis’ Nine speaks of progress in terms of reproduction and has strong parallels to that which 1930s art historian and commentator Walter Benjamin laid out in his essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. Nine is a series of sculptures each cast from the mould of the one before it, the first cast from a 20 cm model of a caryatid (a female figure used like a column supporting the entablature of Ancient Greek temples). Nine questions the value – through typical Synodis humour – of the reproduced object, suggesting in a similar vein to Walter Benjamin, that the further a reproduction is from the original, the harder it is for that object to retain the aura – the distinctiveness – of the original.

Beatriz Acevedo’s work considers the Modernist ideology that progress is made through the industrial. Acevedo casts minimalistic sculptural structures via pseudo-industrial techniques that give them the appearance of the clinical, but always suggest the intervention of the human hand. For example, Split is carved from both manual and mechanical processes. Its aim is to withdraw from the stone an organic geometry, which is materialised in the negative space that is cast in rubber. The natural and synthetic parts of the sculpture duel with one another as the artist refigures the two components in each showing.

As the contemporary art scene continues to strive for the new, what of the old is neglected? If a novel work of art may be recognised by a surface arrogance and quick-fix attitude to the aesthetics and mechanics of making, it’s the value of craftsmanship that’s left behind. Craftsmanship – a concern with the endurance of the object in the manner in which it is made – can be considered as a means by which new work is validated, allowing them to bear the signs of newness but not be brandished as novel.

Daryl Brown’s attentive approach could be described as like that of a quasi-craftsman. His work takes form through the gradual evolution of its materials, directed by the artist’s close hand. However his working process is not contained to a procedure as is the case of a traditional craftsman. Instead, he will push the materials – which are often a collage of natural and synthetic materials such as the unstained wood and neon acrylic of Come on and Dance With Me – until they are metamorphosed into a distinct new form.

Many of the artists appear to deliberately cover the tracks of the new by confusing the identity of the man-made and the organic, disguising industrial technology beneath hand-made processes. Cheryl Field’s Apostate Hassock: David Attenborough is a hand-stitched prayer kneeler dedicated to the icon of secular society. Attenborough’s portrait is so precise – the stitches like pixels – that it only seems possible that it was stitched by a computer-driven sewing machine. But true to its subject matter – a devotional aid – this work became a means in which Field devoted herself to the crafted art objected.

Likewise, Matt Gee uses, and creates, materials that leave the viewer questioning the object’s source. The results – he acknowledges – can either be repulsive or seductive. Gee willingly lets them straddle between the two: between the illustrious and new, and the repulsive and novel. The artist revels in the act of discovery and the unknowingness it involves. His use of copper sulphate is an alluring and intriguing reimaging of the potential of the states of copper. Despite the assumptions we can draw from their artificially vivid colour and illustrious appearance, copper crystals do grow naturally. However, the artist has developed a means of coaxing their growth, and in doing so, he hand makes a mysteriously begotten, and therefore ultra beautiful, substance from which he moulds his new art.

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