Artistic License: Surface Matters

The Design & Crafts Council of Ireland’s biennial selection is committed to presenting excellence in Irish craft and design on an international stage. Curator, LIZ COOPER tells us more about the exhibition at Dublin Castle …

Joseph Walsh Enignum Freeform seats. Photograph by Andrew Bradley

What was the criteria for the 24 craftspeople included in this exhibition?

“Surface Matters” is the culmination of the Design & Crafts Council of Ireland’s biennial Portfolio: Critical Selection, the most recent of which was held in November 2018.

Each selection is made by an international panel of judges including Kim Mawhinney, senior curator at Ulster Museum in Belfast, Belgian gallerist Johann Valcke, whose eponymous gallery is based in Ghent and who was a leading light in the formation of the World Crafts Council, and myself. I am a London-based exhibitions curator, working across the UK and further afield.

Our choice of makers in the Critical Selection 2019-2020 all demonstrate excellent standards of craftsmanship, design, innovation and creative quality in their work. We also looked for cohesion in the body of work they produced, that is to say that we could see the hand and eye of the maker in each piece and relate one work to another. The best designer-makers generally develop distinctive signature styles, which may also encompass certain materials and techniques.

Alan Meredith. Photograph by Roland Paschhoff

Can you mention some of the inclusions?

My first pick is the turned and manipulated wooden vessels that Alan Meredith produces. They are devastatingly simple, elegant forms that really celebrate the oak Alan employs – he completes the pieces in a way that enhances the grain of the oak, so that what seems at first a plain white vessel has amazing surface detail on closer inspection.

Grainne Watts. Photograph by Roland Paschhoff

Grainne Watts also makes very simple vessel forms in stoneware or porcelain, but then brings them to life through astonishing use of matte underglazes. She layers these up and sands back repeatedly so that intricate geometric patterns emerge through the colours revealed. These works positively sing with intensive colour.

Cóilín Ó Dubhghaill. Photograph by Roland Paschhoff

By contrast, Cóilín Ó Dubhghaill’s beaten metal Tulipiere series comprises minimal statement pieces, each hammered and joined from sheets of nickel-plated copper that reference vintage plant containers. They are strange and slightly otherworldly but very satisfying to behold (and lovely to touch, even through latex gloves).

Sasha Sykes. Photograph by Peter Petrou

It’s not only vessel forms that I am a fan of: I also adore Sasha Sykes’ trio of cocktail tables, inspired by artists’ palettes. The vibrancy of the multi-coloured dried helichrysum flowers that she encapsulates in her trademark resin furniture is amazing. Resin is notoriously tricky to work with but Sasha is an absolute master of her chosen medium, creating satisfying forms that celebrate the enclosed vegetation perfectly.

Ciarán McGill. Photograph by Roland Paschhoff

My fifth choice is Ciarán McGill, not only a skilled furniture maker but a confirmed star of modern marquetry. Even without the marquetry finishes his pieces are incredibly well made and would grace any collector’s house or museum collection. The fact that he then enhances these graceful modern pieces with really skilled and unusual marquetry is just fantastic. Very carefully considered muted tones of wood veneers are skilfully cut and assembled to create 21st century versions of portraiture like his young woman on a mobile phone.

Stephen O’Briain. Photograph by Roland Paschhoff.

You mentioned in your essay in the accompanying catalogue that “touch is very important to craft” – can you explain why? Are visitors to the exhibition able to touch the pieces themselves? 

The best craft is a happy union of skill, technique and materials, and often the materials are quite familiar to us from our domestic surroundings: tables, bowls, chairs, vases, throws, cutlery, candleholders. So we are already used to the notion of touching these objects. The skill of the makers in “Surface Matters” is such that we are not only familiar with but very much drawn to the beautiful surfaces they have created, longing to touch: gleaming metal, carved and burnished wood, delicate porcelain, smooth glass, brass insets on cabinets, shining silver vessels, gold and diamond rings. I felt it was ironic to be celebrating  the joy of touch (the curator’s privilege) when visitors to “Surface Matters” cannot handle the works on display, so we have addressed this with a Touch Table at the back of the exhibition. Many of the exhibiting makers have kindly loaned samples of prototype objects or actual materials which are on display to be freely handled.

Need to Know: “Surface Matters” is on at Coach House Gallery at Dublin Castle until May 19, there is a free Culture Club Tour at 2pm on Thursday, May 9. It’s open to the public and you can book your spot by emailing;

Penny McCormick

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