Craft - Katharine Hibbert on why sewing is more sexy than it used to be
The current exhibition at the Crafts Council Gallery, "Boys Who Sew", might not sound like a scintillating prospect. Mention the word "craft" and images of old ladies and tea cosies or of lentil-eating bearded types are likely to come to mind. Both seem a long way from the sexy, headline-grabbing con-temporary British art scene. So I was surprised to find a sign alerting visitors to the show's "adult" content.
The PG certificate was necessary, it transpired, to protect young eyes from Brett Alexander's contribution. Of the works displayed, his are the only ones that make explicit reference to the feminine associations of embroidery. His boys' blazers and girls' pinafore dresses are stitched with homophobic insults such as "nancy boy", "fudgepacker" and "pansy". As craft, his work is dull (the uniforms are shop-bought and the sewing was done on a machine), but since he clearly intends it to be art, that doesn't matter.
Even less skilled as craft - but more successful as art - are Hew Locke's Menace to Society sculptures. Locke mixes crochet squares cut from old blankets with other odds and sods from the markets and pound shops of Brixton to build brightly coloured carnival costumes for voodoo dolls. The dolls seem jolly and even rather kitsch - until you notice the unfriendly eyes peering out at you and the plastic guns in their hands.
Satoru Aoyama uses embroidery to produce stunning, hyperreal portraits, minutely depicting patches of skin on cloth. Not surprisingly, each one takes about a month to complete. Every stitch is like a brush stroke or pencil mark, representing individual pores, blemishes and wrinkles. As you get closer, Aoyama's ordinary-seeming faces are swallowed up by the texture of their skin. In contrast, the embroidery on the wall opposite is almost childlike in its lack of skill. The textile artist Fernando Marques Penteado taught a group of prisoners to sew while he was artist-in-residence at Wandsworth. The images they produced are rather sad: headless chickens trussed up in embroidery thread; naive countryside scenes; lots of bars and watching eyes.
Ben Cook takes fabric as his subject, zooming in on a tiny section of the repeated pattern on a piece of cloth and digitally printing it, considerably en-larged, on to more material. Craig Fisher mixes handicraft and science, using upholstery techniques to sculpt cartoonish bombs and machines. Covered with damasks and chintzes, they wouldn't look out of place in a plush sitting-room. Gregory Leong, a Chinese Australian, makes costumes reflecting his mixed origins: Driza-bone coats in a chinoiserie style; cheongsams to be worn by waitresses at a meat-pie restaurant.
Taken together, the most interesting thing about these boys who sew is not that they are boys, but that they are artists. To judge their work in terms of function and technical expertise would be missing the point. The appropriation of craft by artists is a trend that started, perhaps, with the Young British Artists. Think, for example, of Tracey Emin's blankets appliqued with phrases such as "I do not expect to be a mother but I do expect to die alone", and of Grayson Perry's exploitation of the feminine and domestic associations of sewing and pottery.
Traditional craft is getting sexier, too, thanks to the naked calendar girls of the Women's Institute, the anarchic Tube and department store knit-ins organised by Cast-Off, and such exhibitions as the one of tea cosies by the likes of Kate Moss and Anouska Hempel at Zandra Rhodes's Fashion and Textile Museum in south London. Also, the Victoria and Albert Museum has just hosted a crafts fair called "Collect", filled with beautiful, covetable objects. All of which proves that being a 60-year-old woman is no longer a prerequisite for joining a sewing circle.
"Boys Who Sew" is at the Crafts Council Gallery, London N1 (020 7278 7700) until 4 April