Folk art is usually defined as being made by ‘the people’, as opposed to academically trained artists. The art of the everyday, folk art is a particular type of local culture which has been handed down through many generations, employing traditional techniques and content. As such it is untouched by outside influences and is deemed to express a community’s authentic, collective cultural identity rather than an artist’s individual identity. Folk art employs a range of utilitarian and decorative media including cloth, clay, wood and metal and is more readily identified in terms of the heartfelt/handmade than with a particular aesthetic.
It’s a long way from the provocative, cool, ironic folk art-influenced works made by the likes of high profile artists Grayson Perry, Tracey Emin, Simon Starling et al.
In the twentieth century, folk art came to the fore in a series of moments in England. Perhaps the most important of these was in the middle of the century (1949-54) when a new generation of designers and enthusiasts broadened the definition of folk art with a turn to vernacular culture. The term ‘popular art’, as opposed to folk art, was consequently more realistic at this point. Designer Enid Marx was both a visible and avid collector of folk and popular art at this time. With the inclusion of quilting, sign writing, fairground attractions, gypsy caravans and bargees’ art, Marx’s collections perhaps encapsulate my own notions of folk art better than most.
The most significant national exhibition of folk and popular art that really cemented the shift towards a popular and contemporary people’s art, was Barbara Jones’ show Black Eyes and Lemonade, organised as part of the Festival of Britain in 1951 and held at the Whitechapel Gallery. Jones’ show, incorporating beer labels, comic postcards, plaster ornaments, plastic toys and a 1951 fireplace in the shape of an Airedale terrier, was a far cry from the ruralistic vision of folk art popular in the first half of the twentieth century. The show contested arguments that folk culture was a thing of the past. For Jones, popular art represented a vigorous and modern continuation and extension of folk art traditions.
Despite the surge of renewed interest in the ’50s, folk art remained very much on the periphery, ignored by the national institutional collections. Even by the 1970s, England was noted for its lack of a distinct national folk museum or indeed any effort to integrate folk arts into the national collections. By contrast The American Folk Art Museum based in New York (on the same street as MoMA) has been open since 1961. Folk art collecting practices in England, however, appeared to be determined by individuals with a private passion than any one institution.
Jump forward to 1995 and a show at Metro Pictures in New York by Jim Shaw called Thrift Store Paintings — it was impossible at the time to have predicted the knock-on effect this exhibition would have on the contemporary artworld. The show included paintings from Shaw’s personal collection, started in 1970; the artist had amassed these paintings from ‘thrift stores’ (second hand shops), flea markets and charity shops. The show was not just about the individual paintings but the notion of what it meant to have collected the works and then exhibited them in a hip New York gallery; ‘framed’ by Shaw as one entity. This was a snapshot of, but also a thumbs-up to, the anonymous, untrained and unknown painters of America (folk artists among them). The show displayed a multitude of painting styles and genres and came at a time when the art world may not otherwise have been as inclined to embrace the amateurish appearance of paintings by Karen Kilimnik, Sean Landers and John Currin among others. These artists tempered the out-there awkward folky styles in their own work with an understanding of art history, contemporary popular culture and what was necessary to make a successful painting for a high value art market — not just your friends, family and local community.
With its continued resistance to institutionalisation in the UK, it’s easy to see the appeal of folk art for contemporary British artists. Grayson Perry, with his self declared motto “follow the path of most resistance”, is a personal favourite. Having studied in art school in the 1990s (specialising in ceramics and textiles) when the influence of conceptual craft was starting to make ground, I was thrilled when Perry, dressed as his alter-ego Claire, accepted his Turner Prize in 2003. Using his traditional coiled pots to subvert notions of ‘high’ gallery art and ‘low’ decorative art, Perry’s claims to be a naive craftsman were all part of the appeal. His most recent work ‘The Walthamstow Tapestry’ (2009), exhibited at the Victoria Miro Gallery, sees Perry shift the spotlight from his ceramics to his textiles. Inspired by European folk arts and the elaborate imagery of early 20th-century Sumatran batik fabrics, ‘The Walthamstow Tapestry’ showcases Perry’s continued commentary on modern life. With scenes from childbirth through to death, the tapestry contains several large figures surrounded by smaller images and words. The words are brand names, the smaller images depict scene from modern life – mothers pushing prams, soldiers with rifles aimed, suicide bombers, kids on mobile phones. Perry’s often biting observations of our social reality are still very much at the centre of his practice, but so too is his constant ironic undermining of his own position as one of our most celebrated artists.
Perry is just one artist who forms part of a reappraisal of folk art and its currency within contemporary art. Tracey Emin’s appliquéd tent and blankets, and Simon Starlings ‘Shedboatshed’, are among the other high-profile art works that come to mind. Indeed, many contemporaneity artists draw on naive or vernacular aesthetics. When it comes to painting, American artist Laura Owens’ unique style captures the aesthetics of folk art perfectly. Owens’ paintings celebrate a pleasure in decoration and ornamentation that at times looks more like design than fine art. With influences from an array of sources including historic needlework, her paintings certainly have a refreshingly unpretentious and unassuming quality to them. They are straightforward, almost casual, yet particular and precise.
The Folk Archive (2000 – present) by Jeremy Deller and Alan Kane is perhaps the most ‘authentic’ contemporary visual account of British folk and popular art. Rumour has it their first interview about the show was for the Women’s Institute Newsletter; befitting the pluralist ethos of the show. In part reminiscent of Jones’ Black Eyes and Lemonade, the Archive includes works as diverse as political protest banners, crop circles and a scarecrow dressed as Michael Jackson alongside footage of bizarre ‘performance’ competitions such as the World Gurning Championships. The Folk Archive celebrates items and objects not normally considered by, or made to have any intentional dialogue with, the world of contemporary art. While some critics have viewed The Folk Archive as exploitative and cynical, others have celebrated the haphazard and energetic collection, which captures the creativity of the urban as well as the rural in modern Britain. This might not be art to change the world, but it is undeniably art that represents it.
While aspects of folk art have undoubtedly seeped into the contemporary art arena, I can’t help but feel that the art world is at one and the same time distancing itself from the ‘folk’ routes. From the explanations that Perry won not because of his pots, to supposedly complimentary comments by critics that some of the work in the Folk Archive looked more like contemporary art, there’s seemingly an underlying unease here.
So has folk art faired any better in the craft arena? The conceptual craft movement is of particular interest here, as many of the artists working under this umbrella are working across multiple platforms, utilising traditional techniques, many of which are easily located within traditional folk art categories. The influence of conceptual art is, however, undeniable. Susan Collis for example uses traditional embroidery techniques to stitch over paint splatters on dust sheets. Collis’ work was featured in The V&A exhibition Out of the Ordinary: Spectacular Craft (2007-8), one of the more recent shows that has attempted to address the relationship between the categories of folk, craft and art. Another such exhibition, Radical Lace and Subversive Knitting at New York’s Museum of Art and Design (2007) featured an array of vibrant contemporary pieces, many of which involved collaboration with members of the public working in hobby crafts and traditional folk arts. The work of Cat Mazza was one such piece selected for the show. Mazza’s blanket piece ‘Nike’ featured the work of knitters from over 25 countries who registered their names online on a petition for fair-labour policies for Nike garment workers. Each person then sent through their own sampler to be used by Mazza in the construction of her blanket. However, three days before the show was opening, Mazza received word that the museum had decided against hanging the work because it looked “too funky” among the other works. Interestingly it wasn’t a political or copyright issue that prevented the showing of the piece, it was in fact the ‘low art’ folk aesthetic of the piece that was a problem — so much for their claims concerning the ‘radical’ and ‘subversive’ nature of the show.
So here we are in 2010, and the V&A have finally decided to show their very first collection of British quilts dating from 1700 to the present day. Presented under four main themes, the quilts document births, deaths, love and marriage, regional and national identity and periods of intense patriotic fervour, as well as developments in taste and fashion, and has made headlines as one of the V&A’s most popular exhibitions. The most evident comparison is between the inherent labour intensity of a 300-year-old work against that of the contemporary artist’s in the show. It’s difficult not to be impressed by the age-old craft and authenticity in the original quilts and to judge each one on the time and skill that has gone into its making as much as on its final aesthetic quality. But of course, these early quilts were never made to be part of a contemporary art debate.
And for me, therein lies the wonderful truth of the matter; folk art is as perhaps it always has been, at its best on the outside in all its raw and imperfect glory.