Future Beauty?

Future Beauty?
Crafts Council of Ireland
Kilkenny, Ireland
January 25 – March 18, 2013

Irish craft is not edgy. Case in point: a dear clay lamb gazes out of the cover of the Irish Craft Portfolio: 2013-2014 publication. But Ireland isn’t the Netherlands and edgy is tiresome en masse, a strategy that can ring irritatingly hollow on second viewing. Instead, vessels and clay – the bread-and-butter of traditional craft practice – dominate the content of this exhibition which is sourced from the biennial Portfolio publication and aims to capture the “leading edge of Irish contemporary fine craft in a world-class context”.

Curator Amanda Game acknowledges that “it is difficult, at this stage at least, to claim a clearly visible Irish identity” writing instead of the international networks of makers who have adopted Ireland as home, as well as the Irish makers based beyond the country’s geographic borders who continue to identify themselves with Ireland. She clarifies that Future Beauty? is related to the Portfolio publication, but does not act as an exhibition catalogue. The distinction has left Game with a tricky task: curating a group of objects that have individually garnered international recognition, but do not necessarily offer natural cohesion as a group. This in itself is not unusual. But because the vessel and clay dominate the exhibition, work that falls outside these two clusters struggles in the absence of context.

The Crafts Council of Ireland enjoys an impressive home beside Kilkenny Castle. Two curved gallery spaces are accessed through a broad courtyard and suggest a certain sense of purpose long before you set foot in the galleries. This exhibition occupies both the left and right hand spaces, but in this instance the split galleries have created an awkward balance. In the left hand gallery, Frances Lambe’s monochrome ceramics of pricked surfaces and the pinched delicacy of Sara Flynn’s vessels ask the viewer to peer close. Works such as Angela O’Kelly’s Neck Piece 2, the most paired down of her three works on display, are flattered by this contemplative context. At the farthest end of the space, the thick clean edge of Róisín de Buitléar’s smoky glass vessel Transience Serves Golden sets up a beautiful visual echo with the remarkable curving wood edges of Joseph Walsh’s shelving nearby.

By comparison, the second gallery is jumpier in the objects it attempts to draw together. Eight willow vessels by Joe Hogan dominate the space. In the same gallery, Paula Stokes bold primary coloured glass vessels make joyful viewing on a winter day. Susan O’Byrne’s shelf of birds, much like her Lamb which graces the publication cover, are full of personality and, notably seem to have won the eyes of children who contributed to a drawing wall tucked at the back of the gallery. Nearby, thirteen individual pieces of stoneware and thrown porcelain by Derek Wilson fight for viewers’ attention. The individual statements in this gallery are bolder and coexist less comfortably. The sheer number of works by Hogan and Wilson explain part of the disharmony here; by quantity alone they unsettle the balance of a group show. (To be fair, red dots suggest that sales at the mid point of the exhibition are healthy and may explain the quantity on display.)

This is a group exhibition, but with clearly dominant forms and materials, which means objects such as Nuala Jamison’s small pieces of acrylic jewellery have to work harder than they may in a more sympathetic context. The surprise of contrast could have been useful if apparent throughout. Instead this show does a little bit of both, setting up attractive couplings at moments and extreme contrasts elsewhere that demand the viewer reset their expectations with each glance.

The Portfolio sets its priorities as “excellence in craftsmanship, design quality and technical skill by comparative international standards” and is intended to introduce Irish craft to an international audience of collectors and galleries. Gemma Tipton in her essay “To be a collector” for the publication, refers to this as a “tentacled network” of Irish craft collectors, both within the island and throughout its extensive diaspora. This most recent map of Irish craft charts some remarkable work – perhaps most notable here are the complex surfaces of Jack Doherty’s ceramics and the sinuous work with wood by Walsh. The challenge ahead for Irish craft is that these strengths show up other material areas that currently fail to offer the same calibre of visual excitement.

Crafts Magazine (March/April 2013: 69-70)