After spending an intense week in New Jersey working on the polymer collection project, several things came into focus. While examining, cataloging and organizing about a thousand pieces of work, it was very exciting to view the progress of the medium. Although a few artists began their exploration of polymer in the 1980’s, Nan Roche’s The New Clay published in 1991 provides a good benchmark for the expansion of interest and application. Seeing the enormous range of implementation of ideas among artists makes it clear that no single style or technique has predominated the field.
I also became acutely aware of issues of workmanship. We met with four different museum curators over the course of the week. In addition to artistic merit, craftsmanship was a high priority for each of them. It was especially interesting to observe the curator’s reactions. Some of the big names, that those of us familiar with the medium recognize, the curators did not know, and so their responses were strictly to the work, rather than the reputation. Sloppy or unfinished work was noticed. Brooches with globs of glue holding a pin back were dismissed no matter who made them as both a conservation issue and an aesthetic one. I know lots of artists think it is too fussy to finish work well- or attention to details is stifling of the spontaneous creative moment, or contrary to a more organic stylistic approach, etc., but, it became very clear from listening and watching the curators, that one must pay serious attention to such things. This is not to say that one’s art work needs to be highly restrained in style or content, only that one must consider the entirely of the piece and present all aspects of it in a complete manner. While visiting SOFA New York, I did hear about one exhibiting artist who was doing sloppy work and exhibiting it as “sloppy work”. However, the necklace was accepted as a legitimate and intentional departure because this artist’s norm is impeccable workmanship.
As the museum collection project moves forward, and the profile of polymer rises, it will be wonderful to see it more fully integrated into the larger arena of craft. Artists working in polymer should follow what centuries of crafts people working in other areas such as ceramics, fiber or metal have done, and master this new medium with style, artistry and fine workmanship.