Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
October 15, 2018
Ezra Shales The Shape of Craft London: Reaktion Books, 2017. 272 pp.; 70 b/w ills. Cloth $29.95 (9781780238227)
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Ezra Shales’s The Shape of Craft derives its name as a pointed homage to George Kubler’s influential treatise, The Shape of Time: Remarks on the History of Things (1962). Though he was an eminent Mesoamericanist, Kubler’s book had unusual reach and scope and was widely admired by modernists and practicing artists alike, including his former students at Yale, Sheila Hicks and Richard Serra. Clearly the work of an adroit and poetic storyteller, Shales’s book seeks to extend the lineage and framework for Kubler’s rejection of the art historical masterwork, thereby reordering the cultural hierarchy in favor of humanity’s humble origins in craftsmanship, gleaned through specific observations on anonymous makers and hand-wrought tools. This is certainly one thruway of Kubler’s influence, but it is by no means his primary preoccupation. It is, however, Shales’s.

The Shape of Craft initiates a working definition of craft pertinent to the twenty-first century: “easily understood but not easy to do—and best understood through doing or watching work that needs to be done” (8). In creating an active set of modifiers, Shales makes labor a crucial part of his thesis. This is not surprising: Shales is an art and design historian specializing in what he terms “meaningful labor” (12). His first book, Made in Newark: Cultivating Industrial Arts and Civic Identity in the Progressive Era (2010) focused on the production of the engaged and politically aware citizen-worker, cultivated by social reformer John Cotton Dana’s development of public works, educational opportunities, and the promotion of hand labor as a social good, first at the Newark Public Library, and then through his establishment of the Newark Museum of Art in 1909.

Here too, in The Shape of Craft, the entwined investment in hand-based, skilled labor and industrial production is continuously bound up in American histories of twentieth-century objects, processes, and materials. Shales is a New Dealer for our new century: he is an expert at talking through processes of manufacturing and their effect on workers’ bodies and psyches.  But he also harbors a barely concealed nostalgia for the social uplift of the Progressive Era and its gift of skilled work as a proud vocation for immigrants and the poor—though this is hardly surprising, given our current political climate!

Each of the book’s five chapters represents one of the five historic disciplines that comprise modern studio craft: clay, wood, metal, textiles, and glass. Published by Reaktion, it is a book without endnotes, clearly aiming for a wider swath of audience than just academics. Truly, it is aimed at an expansive network of contemporary artists, artisans, and menders of all stripes—one of Shales’s arguments is that craft is a form of repair, fixing what is already present but broken in the culture. This allows him to expand his thesis to include what he calls “similarly overlooked commonplace craft” (241), perhaps overreaching to include skilled workers like piano tuners, bricklayers, and tool-and-die makers at a pasta factory. This is one of Shales’s constant refrains, and arguably the greatest weakness of his book: he is more enthusiastic about skilled labor than he is about craft-inflected contemporary art. He argues insistently against the individual and what he calls “self-expressive craft” (95). To this end, Shales vigorously applauds urban construction techniques (such as willow weaving in the Netherlands to protect land), reading this as a form of large-scale basketry, purposefully overlooking  contemporary installation art  by artists like Polly Apfelbaum, Tara Donovan, or Ann Hamilton that would similarly fit.

In his astute introduction, Shales argues that mechanical and industrial processes have created the need for new forms of skilled workers, such as riveters who labored collectively on New York’s skyline, for example, attaching the steel frame of the Empire State Building. Shales uses this Progressive Era lineage to apply his chosen terminology: “multihanded crafts” (13), or group manufacture dependent upon material expertise. Chapter 1, “Archetypes: Who Is a Craftsman?” uses archival photos of artists in their studios to set up a strategy for examining distinctly different personas, cultural contexts, and ways of using craft media. He examines three distinctive types: the indigenous New Mexican potter Nampeyo, the modernist sculptor Constantin Brancusi, who worked in wood, and the countercultural 1960s ceramist Karen Karnes. The three stories are individually fascinating, but together, become shorthand (and shortchanged) arguments that signal contradictions in the reception for their distinctive bodies of work.

Chapter 2, “Today’s Craftspeople in an Expanded Field,” is a nod to Rosalind Krauss’s celebrated essay “Sculpture in the Expanded Field” (1977), but in title only. Instead, it becomes the locus for Shales’s manifesto on labor and experience. His argument is this: mass production is only possible through the “collated skills” (81) of many people working together. His work humanizes mechanization by eschewing the individual maker, trying to “move away from work that bears an identifiable author” (70). This is not the first time collectivity and anonymity have been favored over individual artistry, but Shales fails to mention the many nuances and previous iterations of such a premise, from social practice work of the present to the Japanese mingei movement of 1950s, influential in American ceramics, in which pots were left unsigned, privileging the humility of the heroic, anonymous craftsperson.

Chapter 3, “Organic or Industrial? Weaving Cane and Welding Steel,” is the book’s strongest: it refutes the historical fetish with “natural materials” and instead works through a fantastic meditation on basketry and makes a bold comparison to the ways in which welding and its biomorphic trickery hews closely to the bends, curves, and arcs of basket weaving. Chapter 4, “Weaving as a Magic Carpet Ride,” is a comparative study of two mid-century weavers, Jack Lenor Larsen and Alice Kagawa Parrott, and their dual investments in global textile traditions. Parrott, of Hawaiian-Japanese ancestry, settled in Santa Fe and became enchanted by Navajo weaving. Larsen had the more storied career, traveling to far-flung locations to produce sensuous upholstery and interiors for corporations, airlines, and the luxury marketplace. However, the chapter fails to adequately address issues of cultural appropriation. Reiterating many previous points, chapter 5, “Time in Glasscraft,” showcases glassblowing’s natural propensity for teamwork by focusing on the medium’s origins in factories and including an interesting meditation on modern architecture’s obsession with sheet glass in vast quantities.

Shales’s book comes at a time when the material turn in art history is nearing full strength and is no longer secondary to visual culture; material culture has now become a crucial part of the burgeoning training in technical art history and conservation studies. While modern craft studies is only officially ten years old (it was formally named through the founding of the Journal of Modern Craft in 2008), there is a long legacy of its practice through the triangulation of decorative arts and design histories, folklore studies, and material culture theory.

Winterthur Portfolio, the premiere journal for American material culture was established in 1964, though its focus was largely colonial America. In its pages in 1982, Jules Prown (a longtime colleague of Kubler’s at Yale), initiated a student-friendly template for material culture methodology, outlining a practice for applied analysis in classifying and interpreting human-made objects, devices, adornments, and cultural practices. Alongside Prown, the anthropologist Arjun Appadurai and psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and sociologist Eugene Rochberg-Halton jointly published important texts about object agency during the early 1980s.

This was followed by the Journal of Design History, established in the United Kingdom in 1988, which, over the next decade, introduced Judy Attfield, Pat Kirkham, Daniel Miller, Penny Sparke, and a host of other voices to an American audience still mired in the colonial, rather than the contemporary. The borders in material culture studies became increasingly porous in the 1990s and 2000s, with particular investments on the part of anthropologists like Tim Ingold and Michael Taussig, and literary theorist Bill Brown’s “thing” theory. Art historian Glenn Adamson’s Thinking through Craft (2007) became a game changer, offering a pointed theoretical inquiry into American studio craft’s postwar history. Adamson and Shales are peers: craft theorists with art historical, rather than artistic, credentials. This next generation has been a critical boon for the field, allowing for a previously unseen level of rigor to be brought to bear on American studio craft.

To be sure, Shales is a gifted, garrulous, and glorious explainer, in essence, he is a philosopher of the factory floor. He writes highly detailed and observant descriptions of tasks, processes, and objects—no easy feat, particularly when describing how something is made—an issue often overlooked in today’s digitized, desensitized, object-free worlds. Art history is a discipline that eschews fieldwork, but the stakes of Shales’s book are just that: a plea for art history to literally think with its hands, instead of just its head, performing research in the field, not only enlivening the narrative, but also, nudging scholarship toward a social imperative. 

Jenni Sorkin
Associate Professor, University of California, Santa Barbara

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