Virtuoso displays from masters of their craft
Much of the work in ‘Five into Four’ inhabits an in-between zone where craft becomes artistic
A vessel on base by Liam Flynn
As contemporary art has embraced conceptualism and various kinds of socially engaged practices, the traditional notion of the artist as someone who works with a particular medium, and builds up an expertise in it, has largely faded into the background.
For obvious reasons, this is less true of craft, which is still a mode of cultural production that entails sustained, skilful, individual involvement with particular materials and forms.
This is not without some soul searching. As Frances McDonald writes in her introduction to Five into Four at the Oliver Sears Gallery, “We could . . . consider whether or not a continuing focus on material and technique has lessened the value of craft and undermined its soul?” She quotes the great design and craft theorist David Pye: “Craft is a word to start an argument with.”
In the 1960s, Pye, who died in 1993, argued strongly that design was being increasingly promoted at the expense of what he termed workmanship, to the detriment of our living environment – a trend that continues to this day.
Thinking about craft, he developed the idea of what he called “the workmanship of risk”. That is, a process of making “in which the quality of the result is not predetermined, but depends on the judgment, dexterity and care which the maker exercises as he works”.
It’s not at all a question of handmade as opposed to machine-made. You can fetishise craft, he pointed out, by insisting that it is purely handmade, something that accounts for the mediocre quality of much of what passes for craft as encountered at many craft fairs or craft shops. The reality is that skilled makers will use whatever contributes to the best result.
All five exhibitors in Five into Four practice “the workmanship of risk”, and all employ tools, machines and technology of various kinds.
Rather nerve-rackingly, Frances Lambe builds up intricate, rhythmic patterns of piercings in elegant thin-skinned ceramic ovoids, a process that has to take untold hours of calm, meditative application and perpetually runs the risk of failure.
Equally Liam Flynn, probably Ireland’s best-known wood turner, has made a series of exceptional, inner-rimmed vessels, all quarried, so to speak, from the one ash tree.
The viability of Flynn’s turned vessels depends on his instinctive, accumulated experience of both his material and his technique. It’s clear that it could all go horribly wrong – presumably on occasion it does – and part of the appeal of the vessels, and Lambe’s ceramic sculptures, is that we are aware, as we look at them, of how close they come to not being there at all and how they depend on a sense of when to stop.