As part of August Craft Month 2012, Craft Northern Ireland’s exhibition for the duration, (work in progress) contextualizes the work of six of Northern Ireland’s finest craft makers, giving viewers an insight into their various stages of production.
Upon entering the gallery in Craft NI's head quarters in Belfast's Cathedral Quarter – their gallery space is, essentially, also their waiting area, with their office visible behind temporary walls – I'm immediately struck by the steel sculptures created by Antrim-based Eamonn Higgins (pictured below).
Higgins has laid out his process on a chalkboard: a complicated, sometimes humorous web of inspiration, frustration and execution. His finished sculptures – made from intertwined copper wire sprayed with deconstructed steel and shaped into vaguely human forms – seem like brittle reminders of the fragility of human life.
Following Higgins is textile artist, Michelle Stephens, who uses a range of materials all brought together with woven fabric. Evoking Celtic imagery and heritage – here a harp, there a four-leaf clover – Stephens's practice is extremely precise. From her sketches, drawn with ruler-straight lines on graph paper, to the finished products, nothing is out of place.
The presentation of her process, however, is a little curious. Finished pieces are presented alongside raw materials, yarns and threads bunched up and knotted haphazardly, which ultimately takes something away from the scrupulousness of her completed works. It all seems a little too messy, despite her innovative vision.
Continuing on, Diane Lyness presents a mixture of useful objects – napkin rings, candle holders – made using silver and semi-precious stones (pictured above). Her work is clearly inspired by the architecture of flora. Complementary sketches and photographs document her process, and reveal her knowledge of and obsession with uncoiling ferns, flower stalks and stamens.
Work by Catherine Keenan follows, blown-glass sculptures and necklaces (main image). They remind me of Dr Seuss, alien shapes from a wierd, playful world. They are practical – you could imagine using these strange vessels as flowerpots, for example – but they are also very beautiful.
Keenan’s accompanying booklet is perhaps the most in-depth of all the exhibits, and shows the level of difficulty involved in glass blowing, where timing is everything. It features watercolours and sketches that inform Keenan's completed sculptures.
Alison Lowry, meanwhile, repeats the image of a child's dress over and over, screen printed onto different coloured rectangles of glass. When considered together with the book that forms the remainder of her exhibit – which explains that the dress symbolises the estimated 95% of UK sexual assault victims who do not report the crime committed against them – the work is unsettling.
Suddenly it feels like a piece of evidence at a crime scene, an artifact removed, frail, ghostly. The dress itself is included among Lowry's materials, but not a lot of insight into the process is provided.
Finally, Katie Brown prints urban images – barbed wire fences, industrial cranes, lamposts and stones – onto sumptuous silk. The dichotomy between the medium and the subject matter is an interesting one. I think of Japanese textiles that traditionally feature rural scenes, and admire Brown's modern twist.
As individual pieces, these works are impressive. And yet, within the context of the exhibition, Brown's presentation is light on process, and so it is difficult to follow her 'progress' as an artist.
Accompanying the exhibit is a film that goes some way toward filling the gaps (see it in six parts below). Shown on a continuous loop, the film, produced by Adam Frew, shows all six of the artists at work. It contains some interesting scenes, but it’s soundtracked only by music – there are no interviews – and leaves much unsaid.
The size of the Craft NI gallery space undoubtedly limits the ability to illuminate so many works. Nevertheless, this is an interesting exhibition, a window into the working practices of six very talented craft makers, and well worth a visit.
(work in progress) continues until September 24. Watch Andrew Frew's videos of the above artists below.