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Sculpture: An Art of Craft and Storytelling

“Less and less frequently do we encounter people with the ability to tell a tale properly.” So wrote Walter Benjamin in his 1936 essay “The Storyteller,” a melancholy rumination on the passing of the oral tradition. Benjamin thought that the rise of modern mass media—newspapers, novels, radio, film—had displaced older, deeper connections. Once upon a time, people learned about the world face-to-face, from friends, relations, travelers. Their oft-repeated tales, grounded in collective experience and shared wisdom, provided a familiar melody playing over the daily rhythms of life and work. In the modern era, however, that sort of exchange, at once personal and timeless, has been replaced by a steady flow of isolated information and opinion.

Benjamin likened this gradual erasure of communal narrative to the concomitant disappearance of handcraft from the productive sphere. Storytelling is an “artisan form of communication,” he wrote. “And this art is lost when the stories are no longer retained.… It is becoming unraveled at all its ends after being woven thousands of years ago in the ambience of the oldest forms of craftsmanship.”

Benjamin’s eulogy for storytelling also helps explain some of the key patterns in art history over the past century. It’s no coincidence that abstraction emerged concurrently with modern communications, signaling a similarly lofty detachment from the social fabric. Craft itself by no means disappeared during this period—in fact, it played a crucial role in the formation of modernist art, in ways that have only recently been recognized. (Hence the renewed interest in such material-conscious artists as Anni Albers, Sophie Taeuber-Arp, Toshiko Takaezu, Ruth Asawa, and Lenore Tawney.) Even so, craft’s rootedness in vernacular tradition has inspired many contemporary artists to seek it out as a powerful alternative to depersonalization and alienation.

When Martin Puryear was selected to represent the United States at the 2019 Venice Biennale, for example, he responded with a suite of works that Washington Post writer Philip Kennicott characterized as “resolutely meaningful, without specifying which meaning was intended.” In other words, Puryear’s sculptures were somewhat like folktales: the ones filled with implication, without a trace of didacticism.

“Liberty/Libertà,” the title of the exhibition at the US Pavilion, announced a forthright engagement with the grand national narrative. Puryear made sculptures in obdurate materials like wood and metal that resemble historic headwear at greatly enlarged size, implying active thought about the past. The show featured sculptural versions of both the Phrygian cap, adopted during the Revolutionary era, and a military cap from the Civil War. Aso Oke (2019), a bronze cast of a 7-foot-high wooden lattice, took its title from a style of Yoruba weaving and its shape from a traditional West African men’s hat, similar to the Phrygian cap, perhaps referencing individuals who were brought to America against their will. Dead center in the space stood an elegiac worked called A Column for Sally Hemings (2019), a graceful dress-like form in fluted timber, with a large shackle hanging from its scrolled top like a bowed head.

Although Puryear has always commanded widespread respect, Venice provided a ratification of sorts. This veteran artist, committed to craft in times when it had been firmly out of favor, has long occupied an unusual position among leading sculptors. The prevailing tendency in the discipline, particularly since the conceptual turn of the late 1960s, has been to rely on found objects or outsourced fabrication, which both effectively elude the manual skill challenges of independent, studio-based making.

This is not to say that outsourcing is incompatible with craft at the highest level, as the recent four-venue Charles Ray survey—marked by a wryly sophisticated play with materials, themes, and scale—made clear. Nevertheless, the notion that a sculptor might spend years mastering a traditional technique, much less position it at the center of an art practice, has long been regarded as eccentric, parochial, even reactionary.

Benjamin’s essay encourages us to look at things differently. Up until the early 20th century, sculpture was primarily a storytelling medium, with a firm basis in craft. It typically required the support of official institutions, due to its sheer expense, and so tended to reflect vested interests. Yet each work—whether Pharaonic colossus, Greek temple frieze, Gothic crucifix, or Renaissance equestrian monument—also occupied a crucial role in the collective imagination, providing the material expression (and often the literal depiction) of commonly held mythologies.

With the advent of modernism, however, sculpture—like oral tradition—became ever less confident in its civic role. No longer did progressive artists presume to represent a single, shared symbolic order. This aversion only intensified when repressive regimes in Russia, Germany, Italy, and elsewhere adopted heroic sculpture as part of their ideological arsenal. In the postwar era, the avant-garde parted company with public monument-making almost entirely. When the two did reconverge, most famously in Maya Lin’s austerely abstract Vietnam Veterans Memorial (1982), controversy often ensued.

These dynamics have now changed. Puryear’s successor at the US Pavilion, Simone Leigh, is equally invested in superlative craft, grand scale, and fable-like iconography. And in a development that parallels the recent rise of figuration in painting, and perhaps stems from similar motivations—a growing dissatisfaction with critique as an end in itself, and a hunger for more positive, inclusive narratives—numerous sculptors have returned to an affirmative role. Using time-honored craft methods, they are making monuments for the moment, works in which a diverse public can see itself.

Members of this heterogeneous group—among them Diedrick Brackens, Tania Pérez Córdova, Woody De Othello, Simone Fattal, Hugh Hayden, Kapwani Kiwanga, Mai-Thu Perret, and Marie Watt—have one important thing in common: Each prizes craft not just as a practical way to get things done, but as a source of cultural resonance. For these artists, making-by-hand is a way to express a sense of belonging. It tells a story about their extended community and demonstrates ways to give appropriate form to identity, both personal and collective. In their works, we often see two modes of narrative coincide: culturally specific visual references intertwine with the implicit chronicle of a piece’s own physical creation.

Within this broad pattern, we can discern various formal affinities, beginning with certain functional typologies (such as containers, bedcovers, and furniture) that artists adopt for their sociohistorical charge. Quilts are a striking example. Following the powerful precedent of Faith Ringgold, figures like Sanford Biggers and Bisa Butler have laid claim to this textile tradition—sometimes seen in retrospect as an important precedent for modernist collage—because it affords a capacious means of representing Black identity.

Another striking instance is the humble pot, which, after decades of art world neglect, has become one of the dominant sculptural formats of our era. Pottery is among Leigh’s primary references, much as it is for artist-activist Theaster Gates, both practitioners originally trained as ceramists. But many other sculptors are also making vessels the protagonists of their artistic narratives.

Ebitenyefa Baralaye, a Nigerian-born artist based in Detroit, shapes stately quasi-abstract ceramic heads that allude to the African American tradition of the face jug. Features are rendered in sinuous coils, a sort of drawing in clay, and lightly applied over the pronounced throwing rings of the vessel-like forms. In an interview for Art Journal, the artist told me that he is exploring “the way that facial features represent not just one person but a community, a society, and a culture.”

Baralaye emphasizes materiality too, choosing iron-rich strains of earthenware that index Black skin tones. “Clay is not a neutral substance,” he said. “It is a membrane that has specific characteristics and properties as well as a memory of the forces that acted upon it…. Its physical memory is like the experiences and trauma that we carry in our bodies, not always in visible marks and impressions but in a deeply physiological sense, in our shifting ability to cope, to be happy, to feel fulfilled, to be healthy.” Shot through with vulnerability and violence, the story of African Americans’ heritage is, at one level, all too familiar. But in his richly conceived and executed artifacts, Baralaye takes ownership of that narrative, remaking it into something empowering.

Similarly, New York–based artists Clementine Keith-Roach and Julia Kunin address fraught issues of gender. Keith-Roach’s vessels often seem to tell the story of their own becoming, with surrealistically disembodied hands applying light touches to the surface. The terra-cotta jars are found objects, sourced from Turkey and Greece—recent examples of the kind of trade items that have crisscrossed the Mediterranean since ancient times—while the added elements are jesmonite casts from the artist’s own body. This juxtaposition is modulated by the trompe l’oeil surfaces of the bodily elements, which Keith-Roach paints in imitation of the original ceramics’ patina, suggesting historical interchange and reciprocity.

In her newest works, Keith-Roach has further extended this vocabulary by working with large-scale basins and urns attached to casts of her own naked legs kneeling, reclining, or standing upright. Here, she is clearly responding to the sculptural nude, as well as the venerable analogy between the female body and a vessel, one destined to carry and nurture human life. Both of these conventions have served the interests of a sexist patriarchy, but instead of parodying that sort of objectification, Keith-Roach offers a feminine figuration that is explicitly celebratory.

The same is true of Julia Kunin’s multipart ceramic sculptures, in which lesbian erotic imagery is sheathed in iridescent splendor. Since 2009, Kunin has traveled annually to Hungary to work with technicians at Zsolnay, a large ceramics factory famed since the 19th century for its luster glazes. The only American to have recently worked in this context, Kunin has done so at a time when LGBTQ+ rights in Hungary are under concerted assault by the right-wing populist government of Victor Orbán.