For DIY, take some Swords to the material


Mark Swords’s latest exhibition is at once rough-hewn and painstakingly crafted, works of art that reflect the energy bound up in their own making, writes AIDAN DUNNE


New work by Mark Swords Wexford Arts Centre, Cornmarket Until May 12

THERE’S A DIY aesthetic to the work of Mark Swords. It’s as if he takes nothing at face value and insists on figuring it all out for himself. Show him a wheel and he’ll probably try to reinvent it. He comes across as an autodidact who is curious about everything. e=MC2

In his exhibition Mosaic at the Wexford Arts Centre, for example, rather than being satisfied with making a picture of a garden shed, as you might expect an artist to do, he sets about making a garden shed from scratch.

Mind you, it’s not really a shed and would hardly withstand the rigours of the Irish weather. Take a closer look and you’ll see that it’s constructed from sections of discarded paintings – “Most days spent in the studio are fruitless,” he wrote once – and some other, found materials including lengths of wood and pieces of polythene.

It is a full-scale, three-dimensional representation or model of a garden shed. While it is relatively rough-hewn, it is also devised and put together with considerable care, precision and a felicitous touch that is characteristic of virtually everything he does.

It’s a pleasing, nicely made construction. The abandoned paintings, for example, are cut into uniform triangular shapes so that they become something like colourful mosaic tiles. One senses a mind in love with both order and impulse. Inside the shed we find, as if by chance, a short to-do list relating to some of the other works in the show.

In the world at large, more than being purely functional, the humble shed is a retreat and a refuge. Swords’s shed is, or was, a workshop or studio, and not just in a symbolic sense: many of the works we see on the gallery walls were made in this shed-studio, which he built and proceeded to occupy within the space of his own studio. The to-do list is a relic of the process of making the exhibition.

Swords was born in Dublin in 1978. He studied at NCAD and completed an MA in 2003. He now lives in Co Wicklow. As with several other artists of his generation, his work evidences a return to the hand-made and to a domestic sense of scale.

Not to say that their work is especially similar, but in terms of sensibility he’d have something in common with Paul Doran, Mark Garry, Isabel Nolan, Fergus Feehily, Tadhg McSweeney and, in certain respects, Mark Joyce (that’s a group show we’ve yet to see).

Perhaps with a much-publicised centenary this year in mind, things are arranged so that the first work we encounter in Wexford Arts Centre is Iceberg, a beautiful little mosaic sculpture fashioned from shards of mirror and papier-mâché.

Thereafter, the idea of mosaic runs consistently through the exhibition.

Shed has a counterpart in the upstairs gallery, in a huge piece called, equally concisely, Wall, appropriately composed of painted tiles. By using a simple spiral motif, Swords makes a representation of a wall that conveys the energy bound up in its making, substance and function. He would have been justified in titling it E=mc2.

He obviously plays a long game. The spiral pattern subtly echoes his previous exhibition at the same venue, Perennial, in 2010. Occupying the gallery where we currently find Wall was an extraordinary 14-foot-high sculpture of a spiral staircase, titled simply Staircase. It was made from lollipop sticks, glued together. Swords had in mind something that combined notions of strength, purpose, fragility and pattern. He’d noticed the way perennial plants spring up from the ruins of last year’s growth in the garden. His staircase was like the beanstalk in the fairytale.

There’s a Garden in his current show, a jewel-like painting that suggests the phosphorescent glow of a garden at night, all brooding energy, its pointillist brushmarks evoking mosaic.

A skilled painter, Swords is against conspicuous displays of virtuosity. His paintings are plainspoken, although not simple. It’s important to him that they involve more than just “optical perception”. He once went through a phase of making Plasticine models of his subjects and painting the models, which he thought of as “a stage between a real experience of the world and a painting”, a means of relating to the world in terms beyond mere appearances.

In 2007 he made a Plasticine sculpture called Head. A spherical object on a wooden plinth, it doesn’t so much resemble an external view of a head as one of those schematic diagrams of the areas of the brain, all indicated with cheerfully coloured splodges of Plasticine. It makes thinking look like fun.

He clearly enjoys using a host of materials inventively – usually quite humble, commonplace materials such as those lollipop sticks. All the Pieces Matter appears to be a sleek abstract sculpture, fashioned from brass or copper wire, and a very good one.

It turns out to be made from string hardened with resin, and the title points us to the nature of the exhibition as a collection of diverse pieces.

The word “craft” is often used in relation to what he does, and craft is central. Not that he aspires to be a craft maker in any conventional sense, but he does allude to many craft processes and products, including weaving, sewing and woodwork.

In the end, it is the notion of the hand-made that seems to be important, the idea of working things out for oneself and figuring out how to make them with modest means and a measure of understated elegance.

Mosaic is a terrific exhibition, and a relatively low-key one. You need to give the work time, and it will reward you.

It’s hard to sum it up, but it would, for example, be the ideal show to visit if, later on, you were going to see the new Whit Stillman film, Damsels in Distress.