One of the exhibitions within our fifty-year history that I have been intrigued by since my time at the gallery is The Raw and the Cooked (1993), an exhibition curated by Alison Britton and Martina Margetts during David Elliott’s long tenure as Director. The exhibition took its title from Claude Leví-Strauss’s influential 1964 text of the same name, and focused on more than thirty artists working with the medium of clay. It is a measure of the pioneering internationalism of the gallery’s outlook during Elliott’s directorship that the exhibition was described as ‘the third in a series of surveys of visual culture in Britain organised by the gallery since 1987’. The Raw and the Cooked is interesting to me in two aspects.
Firstly, for the way in which it anticipated an increasingly collapsed relationship between ‘craft’ and contemporary art in the 1990s by situating the work of artists whose practice focused on the diverse opportunities of clay as a conceptual and metaphorical medium. The sculptures of Richard Deacon, Bill Woodrow, Alison Wilding, Tony Cragg, Anthony Gormley, Shirazeh Houshiary and Anish Kapoor were referenced in the exhibition catalogue as having ‘a close affinity with figurative and vessel forms, presenting objects as metaphors, marked and metamorphosed by process’.
Secondly, the exhibition acknowledged the increasing influence of anthropology as a lens through which to interpret and to create contemporary visual culture, a development which is especiallyrelevant to artistic practices, discourse and curatorship today. For example, the exhibition – which included early presentations by artists such as Anthony Gormley and Grayson Perry – showed a shift from clay not as a craft material but as a medium for sculptural and conceptual approaches: these included ironical representations of ceramic traditions, relationships to physical, mythological and metaphorical landscapes, as well as identity and sexual politics. Themes as enduring today as they were relevant then.