Here is the conventional wisdom about our world: contemporary art, in the ascendant for decades now, is on an ahistorical rampage, wielding its industrial strength newness and sowing disdain for beauty, mastery of technique, and anything that smacks of pastness. While this may be true of a segment of the art market and its press, artists are quite another matter. Tucked into nearly every issue of Antiques are the works and words of living artists for whom the things we value here are a significant source of inspiration. The British artists described below are a case in point as is Stephen Rolfe Powell, a glass artist whose Whackos and Teasers sit amiably amidst a great collection of Kentucky-bred sugar chests and early stoneware.
The Yale Center for British Art currently has an ambitious exhibition of artists’ books inspired by the natural world that pairs examples from the distant past with those of contemporary makers. The printmaker and engraver Andrew Raftery who is well known for pouring new content into traditional forms seemed to me the ideal person to write about the exhibition, and so he has in electric prose and with surprising insight. Andrew teaches at the Rhode Island School of Design, which prompted me to ask him how he moves his students beyond the fashionable disdain for matters of technique. His answer surprised me.
“The students in my required courses are absolutely hungry for the traditional skills I teach. In my drawing course for the painting department they make iron gall ink, Chinese carbon ink, quill pens from goose feathers, pastels, grounds for silverpoint, and silverpoint tools. They draw from life models…and after working on their own drawings with traditional materials they really know what to look for in a drawing by Poussin, Sargent, or van Gogh when we visit the RISD Museum printroom. The energy in the classroom is incredible and the student work is remarkable for its skill, beauty, and sincerity.”
He went on to say that these students are “comfortable enough with technology to use it when needed and reject it when it is an impediment…I see similar qualities in students I meet as I travel in the United States.”
Those words should be welcome news to us all.
P.S. Readers may wonder why the table of contents displays two covers for this issue. The Guy Pène du Bois cover will appear on newsstands, and the botanical has been sent to subscribers.