Controversial American ceramist. Article by Larry Reid
Warning: This article contains images that may disturb some readers.
“Never Look a Gift Shoppe in the Mouth” intones the inscription on one of Seattle artist Charles Krafft’s porcelain collector plates. So, it should come as no surprise that the creator of delft Disasterwaretm took advantage of a gift — in the form of a grant jointly administered by the NEA, the Citizens Exchange Council, and the Soros Foundation — to travel to the battle-scarred remains of the former Yugoslavia. His diplomatic mission to the Balkans was the topic of discussion at the February installment of Reflex magazine’s superb Third Tuesday presentations at the Two Bells Tavern.
Krafft has toiled for years in obscurity as a painter and writer in the Northwest, earning himself the dubious distinction of being “The oldest promising young artist in Seattle.” Five years ago he joined a guild of lady china painters and acquired the skills to launch a line of hand painted disasters in delft. His career has since taken off like the space shuttle Challenger. “Collector plates are something we’ve all seen in souvenir shops, or advertised in the back pages of supermarket tabloids and Sunday papers”, Krafft explains.“After wading through the usual swill of bad news and lurid gossip, you can usually find one of those limited editions of a maudlin portrait or a rhapsodic pastoral scene to send away for. But you never find the pictures of the gritty life most of us are living in the late 20th century on ornamental china because no one would want to hang it on their walls, much less eat off it“.
While that may be true for many people, a growing number of adventurous patrons soon discovered the twisted irony of his Disasterware tm; resulting in a burgeoning international reputation for this often overlooked Northwest master. His plates debuted at the Davidson Galleries in 1991, and much to the artist’s surprise, they were instantly snapped up by some of Seattle’s most prestigious collectors. Following a few more successful shows in the Northwest, including a “Metropolitan Mobile Museum” show mounted in the back of a traveling semi-truck, Krafft turned to the traditional method of marketing these curios, creating a mail order catalog that he sent to dealers across the country. The response was phenomenal. He was commissioned to create a series of plates commemorating the tragic relationship between the late Sinclair Lewis and Dorothy Thompson for permanent display at their former Vermont estate, now a bed and breakfast inn. The catalog also generated interest among some of America’s most prominent galleries, and led to a one person exhibit at the Garth Clark Gallery in New York. His work was included in a traveling exhibit of printed pottery, and slated for display at the London Crafts Council.
Krafft’s quirky sensibilities eventually came to the attention of an equally eccentric group of artists in the former Yugoslav Federation. Neue Slowenische Kunst (NSK) is a Slovenian artists collective whose activities were inspired by the Socialists regime’s banishment in 1983 of the provocative Slovenian industrial rock band Laibach. In response to the government edict, a group of young artists, actors, designers and writers collectively called what their activities Laibach Kunst, to keep the name of the band before the public. As Laibach achieved international acclaim, they became a source of national pride, and the ban was grudgingly lifted after four years. The rebellious collective then became known as NSK.
NSK contains several diverse elements: LAIBACH, the Music Department; IRWIN, the Painting Department; a Theater Department known as NOORDUNG; NEW COLLECTIVISM Graphics; and the Department of Pure and Applied Philosophy. In accordance with the Eastern European trend of the time, NSK formally declared itself an autonomous transglobal state in 1993, complete with their own passports, currency, postage stamps, diplomats and embassies. To date, embassies have been established in Moscow, Ghent, Berlin, Venice and most recently, Sarajevo. The primary purpose of Kraftt’s residency with the group was to help create commemorative china for use at official NSK embassy functions and state occasions.
Krafft was on hand for the declaration of an NSK State Territory in Sarajevo where Laibach performed two free concerts at the National Theater of Bosnia coinciding with the announcement from the U.S. of the Dayton Peace Accords. The activities included an art exhibition, computer links to the NSK Electronic Embassy in Tokyo, and the issuance of 300 passports. As Krafft observed: “Keeping culture alive in a situation that severe becomes a means of sharing in the dignity of purpose that is the real spirit of art after its pretensions are all stripped away. NSK delivered a musical and conceptual payload that couldn’t have been more perfect for that time and place. They turned the city’s trauma into a laboratory where the audience, without being patronized for its plight, was invited to engineer its own understanding of the multi-media event they were participating in. Outside the theater, the world media voraciously harvested sound bites from war victims about the news from Dayton. Inside, new citizens of an alternative mental territory were busy digging the loaded irony of Laibach’s techno deconstruction of Serbian army anthems“.
The effect of this event on Krafft was profound. “The people of Sarajevo were so isolated. It renewed my faith in art as a means of connecting people to contemporary culture“.
Krafft used the occasion of his talk at the Two Bells to announce that the NSK painters group and three Russian guests will visit Seattle this summer for a summit meeting. As part of Atlanta’s international Cultural Olympiad, the group will travel in two RVs to New York, Chicago, San Francisco, and Seattle. They plan to engage local artists, writers and philosophers from different cultural and political backgrounds along the way in discussions and actions which will be linked by computer to their exhibitions in Atlanta and Rotterdam. The event entitled TRANSNACIONALA promises to provide an important forum for a collaborative exchange with this extraordinary group of visionaries.