The Crawford Art Gallery in Cork has opened a new show featuring the work of six contemporary “artist makers” as they are sometimes called, or craft artists or fine art crafters, or fine crafters, perhaps?
The craft/art debate is one that tends to preoccupy those inside the art world more than it does collectors or gallery goers. It becomes a question of hierarchy, a question of how various art-forms are valued, a question of what we consider “art”.
The artists in Earth, Wind and Fire are all Cork-based and work with what are generally regarded as craft techniques. They are Nuala O’Donovan, Eoin Turner, Alex Pentek, Mary Palmer and Anne Kiely (who work together) and Joseph Walsh. Walsh is a furniture maker, who causes layered, laminated wood to twist and turn, and occasionally soar into the air, like ribbons. At the Crawford, he shows one of his Enignum Canopy beds. A real fairy-tale crib, it’s a design classic that’s already part of the National Museum of Ireland collection.
He also shows an enormous table installation, which extends up into the roof of the high gallery extension, in a swirling, cyclone form. It’s remarkable. Walsh works with a team of craftspeople in his studio in Riverstick. His output stands out for its sensual, spectacular, high impact, sculptural ambition. He turns objects generally regarded as solid, domestic and practical – chairs, beds, tables and shelves – into something fantastic. Walsh makes (non-functional) sculptures too. His enormous Magnus Modus installation was unveiled as part of the recent refurbishments at the National Gallery of Ireland, in the new gallery courtyard space, between the older wings.
This show is a follow-on from 2016’s Made in Cork: the Arts and Crafts Movement from the 1880s to the 1920s, which examined the Arts and Craft movement and its influence in Ireland. In her selection process, curator Anne Boddaert was looking for a demonstrable synergy between “artistic excellence and technical skill”.
The exhibition is accompanied by a small catalogue, which includes short interviews with each of the six. Turner is asked how we might tell the difference between “art” and “craft”. He says the answer “probably lies in intent”. Turner works in glass and metal and his work is more clearly sculptural. He has a huge floor to ceiling installation in this show too.
All six are inspired by shapes and forms in nature. O’Donovan’s work in porcelain is bone-like and brittle-looking. She makes ceramic forms that are organic and carefully structured, funnels and shell-forms, and curves like petals. Some take the form of nests or vessels, others look more architectural, structured like scaffolding.
Pentek works with origami folds on a large scale. It’s a wonderful counterpoint to Walsh’s and O’Donovan’s. He’s interested in the connection between origami and cosmology, in how folded shapes can inform us about the shape of the universe, folded space-time, how folding can turn a two-dimensional surface into a three-dimensional form. He makes site-specific works, in this case a long, hanging folded paper origami sculpture.
Pentek is interested in invisible inner patterns and the gaps and connections between what’s seen and unseen, in patterns on the outside and the structure underneath, perhaps on a cellular level.
Kiely and Palmer work together to make “art quilts”, a fantastic term. They involve stitch, print and quilting and are wall-hung, featuring narrative devices including images of animals, human figures, buildings and more. There are abstract lines and shapes too, reminders of boundaries like field divisions.
In many ways, this is simply a show of beautifully made objects, but there is more to it than that. It’s craft as art or art as craft and a celebration of the cross-over between the two. It’s about work that is expertly made, but which is always more than decorative; a show about turning ideas into objects, with acute intelligence and skill. Is it art? In the catalogue, Kiely and Palmer are asked the same question as Turner: When is a maker an artist? Their answer? “If the work connects to someone, does it really matter?”