Crafting a Difference: a unique and thought-provoking exhibition in a context of immense heritage and refinement

Anya Cooklin-Lofting | 04 Jan 2022


For London Craft Week, the gallery group Crafting a Difference took over the official residence of the Argentine Ambassador in London to stage an exhibition curated by Andrea Harari and Brian Kennedy

Stepping through the lacquered, black doorway of the Thomas Cubitt-designed 49 Belgrave Square, London, now the official residence of the Argentine Ambassador, is akin to passing through a Carrollian looking-glass. From the 4th-10th October, it played host to Crafting a Difference, an eponymous exhibition from the new, disruptive gallery group to celebrate international contemporary craft as part of London Craft Week.

It is in these historic, ornate rooms of tapestries, gilt plasterwork and heavy drapery that the exhibition was held; a provocative, elegant backdrop to more than 200 artworks in ceramics, wood, glass, metals, textiles and paper from the five galleries that comprise the group: Cavaliero Finn, jaggedart, MADEINBRITALY, Ting-Ying Gallery and Vessel Gallery. The decadently furnished parlours were gloriously subverted with strange little anachronistic objects and huge installations as if the home has been left to new tenants; nebulous organisms creeping up the walls or suspended, araneous in the gaping stairwell.

Image courtesy of jaggedart

With support from Artegian, Crafts Council, QEST, Loewe Foundation, Michelangelo Foundation, Cockpit Arts and Design Centre Chelsea Harbour, the Crafting a Difference exhibition was helmed by the Argentine gallerist, Andrea Harari, who staged the exhibition in partnership with curator, Brian Kennedy, the creative force behind the group.

The venue itself proved reason enough to visit this touchstone in the London Craft Week candle. The Grade II listed house was finished in 1851 before additions to the property, including the octagonal lobby, were made in the latter half of the decade. Its first sales were to members of the British nobility and in 1936, it was acquired by Argentina with its established art collection and its majestic assemblage of antique furniture. Since the acquisition, the property has been used as the country’s Ambassador’s official residence in the capital.

Image courtesy of jaggedart

To glimpse 49 Belgrave Square’s bedecked innards is a rare privilege. It has been opened to the public but once a year since 2006 when it was the first Embassy to become part of Open House London, an annual festival celebrating the city’s diverse architectural landscape, set up by the charity, Open City. While exploring the spaces beyond its stucco frontage, the golden sense of privilege is tangible. That the residence hosted Crafting a Difference marks an unprecedented move from the Ambassador to offer a unique context for the work of the international makers and artists. It has opened its doors to one of the most unique and thought-provoking joint exhibitions I have yet to encounter in a context of immense heritage and refinement.

In what could be considered an allusion to Alice’s dreamlike transition from the real world into Looking-glass House, upon entering 49 Belgrave Square, one was greeted by Denise de Cordova’s He/She (2016, jaggedart), a carved wooden bird guarding a small, mirror-panelled lift. Its unsettling scale and uncanny, avian essence set the tone for what was to be an exhibition laden not only with beautifully crafted artworks but furnished generously with humour.

Andrea Salvatori, Gold Nugget, MADEINBRITALY - Juno Snowdon photography

But not all of the works on display were quite so obvious in their absurdity. Edging through each grand room, my eyes began to train themselves on the outliers in the decoration; the inconspicuous inaccuracies that, upon closer inspection, revealed themselves to be the most beautiful things in view. One such example is Italian sculptor, Andrea Salvatori’s Gold Nugget (2021, MADEINBRITALY), a glazed earthenware and porcelain abstraction of a classical Roman sculpture complete with several Putto bearing a comically large, bulging golden mass. At first glance, it could have been a traditional, beautiful but ordinary antique ornament, positioned as it was upon an elaborate console table with bowing legs of scrolling, Regency gilding in a similar golden finish. Approaching the piece, it became evident that Salvatori has something to say, a trick up his sleeve. You can almost see his smirk in the casual indifference of the miniature, winged bearers, oblivious to their Sisyphean plight.

Andrea Salvatori, Tuttitappi (Oppah!), MADEINBRITALITY - Juno Snowdon photography

Another of his works has the same effect, this time with a slapstick, circus-like mania as an elephant is birthed, trunk first, from Delft Blue vase. Tuttitappi (Oppah!) (2016, MADEINBRITALITY) is a study in distortion, forcing a feeling of claustrophobia upon the viewer. Indeed, how will that poor elephant get the rest of its bulky hind through the narrow neck of the upended vase? It also hints at the magic that may very well lurk in forgotten vases or boxes in any home. How long might the shrunken, white elephant have been curled dormant in the base, awaiting rescue, dreaming of escape? Might one find a ceramic baboon in their sugar bowl or a blue whale in a soup tureen? If Salvatori had his way, I’m sure each jewellery box and candlestick would rupture with the uprising of his miniature menagerie.

Chris Day, Under the Influence, Vessel Gallery

The wonderland was sprawling, and a deeper and deeper (curiouser and curiouser…) maze of rooms unravelled ahead of me. Under the Influence, I-IX, (2021, Vessel Gallery), an installation by Chris Day, saw one of the Ambassador’s rooms overtaken by the alien forms of manipulated glass, constricted with microbore copper, copper wire and rope. Sitting unassumingly upon a windowsill was Bi-Valve (2019, Ting-Ying Gallery), a sculpture in reused HDPE plastic by Irish artist Helen O’Shea that managed to be at once subaqueous and capable of flight with its scales of pink-rimmed feathers. Nicholas Lee’s Floating Bowls (all 2021, Cavaliero Finn Gallery) lined a mantelpiece like a collection of shells, their precise ridges echoing those delicate, organic mouldings.

Helen O’Shea, Ting Ying Gallery - Juno Snowdon photography

Nicholas Lee, Floating Bowls, Cavaliero Finn Gallery - Juno Snowdon photography

A colonnade of Jo Taylor’s coloured stoneware sculptures (undated, Vessel Gallery) stood in the hall, white plinths elevating the works in all their gnarled grandeur as if salvaged from the melting ruins of a putty civilisation. My list of highlights knows no end, and even then, I know there are works that remain undocumented in my burgeoning files.

Jo Taylor, Vessel Gallery - Juno Snowdon photography

Alice awoke from her dream of Kings and Queens, Tweedledum and Tweedledee, while the Wonderland of Crafting a Difference made its mark in a very real way for the craftspeople, artists and visitors to the exhibition. It is a luxury to know that such a spectacle took place; a delight to know that others shared in my pleasures of discovery in the great rooms of the Argentine Ambassador’s Residence.

Juno Snowdon photography