Are traditional techniques the new trend in contemporary art?

Stefano Pirovano

Artists are abandoning the legacy of Duchamp to go back to traditional techniques, especially in Europe. Ceramic, bronze, glass, or marble pieces are winning the attention of collectors. A new order may soon be established, with the kind help of the new art markets.

Among the plethora of conflicting ideas that the Paris contemporary art week generated in our mind there’s one most likely to stay longer than the others. While visiting the booths and looking for some edible mushrooms to pick, we gradually convinced ourselves that Duchamp’s descendants may go through a tough time in the near future. Most of the best pieces that we saw at Fiac and Paris Internationale weren’t ready-made or assemblage, but three-dimensional artworks produced by using traditional techniques such as bronze or ceramic. What does this mean? Could it be a new trend? Has the ‘post-‘ of post-internet art already started?

Of course both bronze and ceramic – but also marble, terracotta, glass or plaster -, have always been around, and not even Damien Hirst’ new army of bronze sculptures currently on exhibition in Venice could be able to confirm our hazardous assertion. But US decreasing cultural influence on Europe combined with the impact of growing contemporary art markets like those in the Far East and Sub-Saharan Africa may provide our idea with an appropriate framework. These relatively young art markets seems to be less prone to the object-based art than Europe and US used to be for decades.

On the contrary, they tend to prefer traditional artistic quality to the mere idea of it generally represented by conceptual artists. And perhaps China, Sub-Saharan Africa, Russia and India were also the markets Hirst had in mind when switching from formaldehyde to bronze. And, these markets seem also to be the first target of the new gallery of David Zwirner in Hong Kong, that is meaningfully going to inaugurate with a solo exhibition of a ‘traditional’ painter such as Michaël Borremans.

So, let’s go back to Paris and try to remember what was on exhibition there. Let’s focus our attention on ceramics, that is generally less demanding than bronze and therefore more suitable for galleries representing emerging artists.

Our first memory is of the group of pieces by Eric Croes presented in the booth of Sorry We’re Closed, at the FIAC. We met the artist last Spring in Brussels, in occasion of his brilliant solo show at the gallery founded by Sebastien Janssen almost 10 years ago. Croes’ sculpture expressiveness and stylistic coherence impressed us. His approach to sculpture can be very simple and very sophisticated at once; in this regard it calls to mind the work of Nicolas Party, one of the most promising European artists (curiously they’re both based in Brussels). Croes proves to have the same control over the medium and similar ability of making abstraction out of figuration. But Croes is more interested in shaping the meaning of every single piece. They stand for intimate poetries based on symbols, cultural references, icons, and surrealistic relationships. ‘What I like about ceramic – Croes wrote in the catalogue of the above-mentioned exhibition – is that it enables me to give free rein to my hands and let it go’.

At the booth of Emanuel Layr, also at the FIAC, we have noticed the family of ceramic sculptures by Lena Henke. The pupil of Michael Krebber at Frankfurt Staedelschule, Henke (1982) explores the three dimensional format through the use of different medium, including bronze and ceramic. The titles of the attractive group of phallic, zoomorphic and architectural small glazed ceramic sculptures she presented in Paris address social or ethical issues. They are to be intended as a single installation, even if they can be sold separately. The pink wooden plinths on which the pieces are standing are part of them. They keep the door of formal possibilities open to different materials’ crossovers.

Also at Grand Palais, but on the ground floor, Art:Concept gallery had on exhibition three hypnotic enamelled ceramic masks by Caroline Achaintre. She started doing ceramic 5 years ago in London. She was looking for a more stable material than paper for producing her masks. At some point she tried with ceramics. In a recent chat we had with the artist in occasion of her current residency at Moly-Sabata Fondation Albert Gleizes Caroline told us that she has been studying this medium since then. ‘It’s a quite spontaneous technique, I particularly like the sort of instant dialogue you set with the material. I can play as much as I like with surfaces, and that is exactly what I want. Moreover ceramics can be attractive and repulsive at the same time’ she claimed.

The same interest in exploring the potential of doing handcrafted works is to be found in Emma Hart’s pieces. The Max Mara Art Prize for Women 2015 winner had two early ceramics on exhibition in the booth of The Sunday Painter, at Paris Internationale. As we pointed out a few weeks ago while writing about her exhibition at Collezione Maramotti in Reggio Emilia, ceramics is helping Emma to represent problems of everyday life with miraculous effectiveness.

Also Gregor Steiger and Union Pacific gallery presented some remarkable ceramics at Paris Internationale. At this latter’s booth there was a family of sexually explicit bowls by Japanese artist Urara Tsuchya, while Steiger gallery presented a couple of new ceramic sculptures by Sonia Kacem, who started practicing this medium during her residency at the Rijksakademie in Amsterdam. To conclude we would like to pinpoint also the three elegant black sculptures made of ceramics by Davide Stucchi on exhibition at Deborah Schamoni. Traditional techniques have never looked so contemporary as this year in Paris.

November 2, 2017