art curator and writer
Warwick Freemen Just Monkeys Installation View Bowen Galleries June 2016. Image courtesy of Bowen Galleries.jpg

Useful Limits

 

Useful Limits: The Object-Making of Warwick Freeman

Warwick Freeman, Just Monkeys, installation view. Bowen Galleries, June 2016. Image courtesy of Bowen Galleries

 
 

 When Warwick Freeman’s exhibition Just Monkeys opened at Bowen Galleries in 2016, its lack of jewellery caused quite a stir.

Four high-legged wooden tables held their own amongst the throng of guests. A palette of primary colours mingled with the charcoal hues of tarnished fine silver, tin and basalt.  Warmth and domesticity permeated the space, where the objects—should their future owners allow it—could serve a purpose over and above being admired. An unassuming coiled bowl held mandarins, while candlesticks waited to shed light, bookends bound narratives, and paperweights saved scribbled thoughts for later.

The oldest work in Just Monkeys was Servers, first made for the 1991 exhibition Feasting Table at Galerie Ra, Amsterdam. In fact, Freeman has been making unwearable objects since the early 1970s. Coming of age in Nelson’s counterculture, he was part of a generation interested in utilising available resources to construct self-sufficient lives. His foray into designing houses and building furniture was the kernel of a practice based in making out of necessity. This modus operandi has influenced Freeman’s jewellery for 40 years: reflecting in a recent Current Obsession interview that ‘usefulness is the most meaningful reason for making I can put into a space. You should always ask yourself the question - why make this?’[1]

Warwick Freeman,  Servers , 1991-. Image courtesy of the artist and Bowen Galleries.

Warwick Freeman, Servers, 1991-. Image courtesy of the artist and Bowen Galleries.

In And viewers like you, American contemporary jewellery advocate Susan Cummins describes the conundrum she faces when explaining contemporary jewellery to art collectors:

I have begun to define it in my own mind as an object informed by the scale and historical demands of traditional jewelry, but clearly pushing the limitations imposed by them. Most of the work comes from an academic background where the jewelry and metalworking departments are part of a fine arts or design program. Which is odd because in this country contemporary jewelry lives in the craft world. Which is also odd since this kind of jewelry is more than anything a luxury item and craft was originally associated with the idea of democratic sympathy between makers and buyers.[2]

Freeman’s background as a self-taught designer of houses and maker of furniture, utensils and  objects sits both as a precursor and in parallel to his role as a contemporary jeweller interested in invoking ‘democratic sympathy’.   

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As an artist, Freeman found his place within  the  space where New Zealanders of European descent were coming to grips with what it meant to be Pākehā. Curators and writers in turn used his work to explore these ideas through exhibitions, essays and reviews. Freeman’s relationship with the term  ‘Pākehā’ was most thoroughly examined  by Damian Skinner in the 2004 exhibition and publication Given, which compared the artist’s practice to New Zealand’s nationalist and regionalist movements of the early-mid twentieth century. However, instead of placing Freeman as a disciple, Skinner writes:

Jewellery obviously offers a different set of medium characteristics to grapple with than painting, but it would be safe to say that Freeman’s pieces clearly belong to a more urbane figure than the black-singlet-wearing artist-farmer mythologised by New Zealand intellectuals in the 40s and 50s. Freeman’s sensibility is much more playful, more postmodernist – these works are about found objects, a quoting from various sources and cultural forms.

While they are about New Zealand, it isn’t a monolithic, rural, authentic place struggling to find an identity (as it was for the nationalists). Rather, Freeman’s references are to signs, images that already take part in a series of systems that create New Zealand identity: advertising, tourism, popular culture.[3]

Freeman fits within the later, parallel quest by contemporary jewellers manifested as the Bone, Stone, Shell movement of the 1980s: a response to the international critique of preciousness that sought to give local wearers markers of identity. In the Bone Stone Shell catalogue John Edgar wrote: ‘A growing awareness of our place in the South Pacific has led a number of jewellers to use traditional materials in a contemporary way that acknowledges our bicultural heritage and redefines our values in the twentieth century.’[4]

Later works—such as Tiki Face (1992), an abstracted tiki and Koru Whistle (1993), a whistle ending in a koru form—moved beyond signifying identity through material and technique. These pieces are double edged: while they imply appropriation of Māori culture (another longstanding Pākehā tradition) they comment on appropriation itself by artists such as Dick Frizzell and Gordon Walters in the higher profile medium of painting.[5] In making such works, Freeman entered his contemporary jewellery into a wider art historical conversation that shifted from exploring the identity of the wearer to exploring the identity of the maker.

This line of enquiry evolved in Just Monkeys as Freeman turned inwards to look at himself. A lamp placed on the floor in the corner of the gallery bore an uncanny resemblance to Colin McCahon’s painting Candle in a Dark Room (1947). This well-known  still-life featuring a solitary candle  was made in response to McCahon’s first meeting with the poet James K. Baxter. Small but powerful, the painting acknowledges the potential McCahon saw in the young writer. The candle—co-opted from Romantic symbolism–positions the artist as a source of illumination in a world that doesn’t always appreciate them.[6]

Warwick Freeman,  Lava Lamp  2016. Image courtesy of artist and Bowen Galleries.

Warwick Freeman, Lava Lamp 2016. Image courtesy of artist and Bowen Galleries.

I was delighted when, rifling through wads of small, rectangular notes under the paperweights, I found the words “CANDLE IN A DARK ROOM” scribbled in block letters. As was Freeman’s intent with Tiki Face and Koru Whistle, the re-use of this emblem is not celebratory. His purposeful but buried reference to McCahon is a comment on the place curators and writers have given the painter within New Zealand’s art history , and Freeman’s own feelings of unease around the artist-as-prophet trope. He reflects:

Essentially, you speak from your own place. It’s not my ambition to speak for anyone else. How it’s interpreted by people wherever they stand in terms of their own identity, that’s fine, but the artist can’t give themselves the power to speak on anyone’s behalf, that’s indulgent. [7]

The notes read like clues uncovering the exhibition’s purpose. Freeman’s thoughts were layered with diagrams of tables, costs, phone numbers, sketches and the title of the show with a quote from Stephen Hawkings: ‘We are just an advanced breed of monkeys on a minor planet of a very average star. But we understand the universe. That makes us something very special.’

It’s almost too easy to wonder if Just Monkeys was a rather serious comment on human nature. The primary colours, scratchy surfaces, titles like Tusk top paper weight (2016) and simple skull-like forms of argillite bookends all link with the primitivism aesthetic, while conveniently reflecting Freeman’s musings in the pre-mentioned Current Obsession interview: ‘I think an identity we are not at ease with is as a species on the entire planet.’[8] But Freeman’s response to this reading is more matter of fact:

I can say some of my work is influenced very directly by something like primitivism, the form that was adopted as a house style by 20th century art. I look at primitivism as it has been filtered through Western art, so of course my own making is bound up in the politics of that. But it’s not something I expect every viewer to engage with.[9]

The colours, the found (or given) qualities in his materials, and his reference to primitivism and McCahon are all recurring motifs: reflections gleaned from his environment as a maker, a New Zealander and an inquisitive soul.

Warwick Freeman, paperweights installation view from Just Monkeys, 2016. Image courtesy of the artist and Bowen Galleries.

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The objects in Just Monkeys also continued a direct line of enquiry that grew from Freeman’s door handles  (2014), which in turn hark back to his self-sufficient practice in the 1970s. Not wanting to let pieces of volcanic rock too big or ill-shaped for jewellery making go to waste, he began to use their forms to re-imagine an object usually mass produced and found in hardware stores. His interest in democratic sympathy saw Freeman consider the door handles through meaning and functionality, dissecting the structure of the word: ‘door’ the noun naming the object and ‘handle’ the verb, telling us what to do with it. Using this formula he picked three of the most defunct objects he could think of (which he could make with his available resources)—the bookend, the candleholder and the paperweight—and set himself the task of exploring their conceptual worth.

It is no surprise that the notes under the paperweights were remnants of Freeman’s version of a visual diary; a dare to interact with the installation and a gift to those who did. With them, Freeman negates the notion of the creative process as lineal, revealing how it draws from intuitive, practical, researched and conceptual elements that bounce off each other, occasionally hitting dead-ends before they feel comfortable. Including them in their raw form opened up a certain vulnerability, but gave the paperweights a purpose: congregating important thoughts.  

The paperweights were inspired by designer Enzo Mari, who collected objects throughout his life to hold his preparatory drawings, ‘granting the papers months and years to mature, to form geological layers of meditation.’[10] This sense of a lifetime of accumulating thoughts as material for making also occurs is Freeman’s Dust (2011), which is both an archive and artwork. Dust contains every material he has used, ground up and slathered over small rectangular wooden discs (not unlike the paperweight notes in scale). Despite each disc being drilled with a pendant like hole, collectively they hang on a wall in a grid, part show-room sample part abstract painting. Once again, if the viewer chooses to interact with the work (as if its components  really were paint samples), they are rewarded with identifiers scribbled on the discs’ reverse, including pigments made from “HORSE TOOTH”, “POHUTAKAWA” and “BLACK LIPPED PEARL”. Revealing the materials Freeman has used over his career, Dust is unequivocally links to the thoughts he has collected along the way, melding the practical nous and conceptual weight of his practice. Reflecting on this ‘space between’ his work occupies, Freeman relays:

Warwick Freeman, Dust 2012. Image courtesy of the artist and Bowen Galleries.

Politically, I call myself an artist because I know how an artist works, regardless of what they are making. At the same time, I readily admit to the fact that I work with particular rules; they are self-imposed, therefore they’re variable and voluntary. Because I was self-taught there was always a very fluid line for me of where the boundaries were. It’s not so much the idea that you can do anything, because you can’t, but that you can do a lot of things within parameters.[11]

Freeman’s self-positioning as an object maker resonates with the ethos expressed in Glen Adamson’s influential book Thinking through Craft: “Art is anything that is called art, craft involves self-imposed limits.” [12] Adamson goes on to write:

The limits embodied by craft are not only physiologically comforting, but also conceptually useful. The implications of a decorative object in its surroundings; the sensual characteristics of specific materials; the regulation imposed by specialised tools when properly employed; the socio-political connotations of the figure of the artisan; and even the literal limits of time and space suggested by long days in a small shop all provide a kind of friction that keep pressing questions of form, category and identity open for further investigation.[13]

Craft becomes a process or verb that needs to be useful—or reference use in some way—in order to make sense. I am reminded again of Freeman’s reticence around being roped into the same gene pool as McCahon, Walters or Frizzell by curators and writers (such as myself). This in itself is a limit that acts both as a framework to be grounded in and to grow from. Working and succeeding within the limits of his physical surroundings—the size of this studio, his low tech equipment and the materials available to him—has made Freeman a master of craft. Regardless of whether the objects he creates are candlesticks or paperweights, pendants or brooches, his wider practice and identity is as a maker who continues to explore the relationship between maker and object, object and user. 


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This article was commissioned by Art New Zealand Number 163/Spring 2017.

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[1] Kelly Riggs interview with Warwick Freeman ‘Distance From the Stars’, Current Obsession Magazine #4 Supernatural Issue, Current Obsession, The Netherlands, 2015, p. 86-93.

[2] Susan Cummins, And viewers like you, Art Jewellery Forum, San Francisco, 25 November 2010, https://artjewelryforum.org/and-viewers-like-you .

[3] Damian Skinner, Given: Jewellery by Warwick Freeman , Starform, Auckland, 2004, p.2-9

[4] John Edgar, Bone, Stone, Shell, New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Crafts Council of New Zealand, Wellington, 1988.

[5] Damian Skinner, Given: Jewellery by Warwick Freeman , Starform, Auckland, 2004, p.2-9

[6] Peter Simpson, Candles in a dark room, Auckland, Auckland Art Gallery, 1995, p.2-4.

[7] Warwick Freeman, interview with the author, 26 August 2016

[8] Kelly Riggs interview with Warwick Freeman ‘Distance From the Stars’, Current Obsession Magazine #4 Supernatural Issue, Current Obsession, The Netherlands, 2015, p. 86-93.

[9] Interview with the author 26 August  2016

[10] Rikidka Naidoo, ‘enzo mari sixty paperweights', Designboom, 19 April 2010, http://www.designboom.com/design/enzo-mari-sixty-paperweights/

[11] Interview with the author 26 August 2016

[12]Glen Adamson, Thinking through Craft, Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, London, New York,2007, p. 1-7

[13]Ibid