AT A TIME when so many art colleges are accused of neglecting the basics of painting and drawing, it’s gratifying to come across Bren Smyth — who actually calls himself a drawer.
Together with his fellow Crawford Art College graduate, ceramic artist Luke Sisk, they’re exhibiting at the CIT Wandesford Quay Gallery in an exhibition entitled, All Intents, Constructions and Purpose, which draws on their mutual interest in architecture in the context of Cork City.
Better known by its abbreviated form — ‘for all intents and purposes’ — the exhibition title is the full phrase coined in the 16th century as part of Henry VIII’s taking of power to legislate by proclamation, which gave him limitless control over all spaces and by default, the shaping of the environment.
Developing the exhibition from this expression gives the concept, and Luke and Bren have developed it with a maturity and complexity that belies the fact they both graduated from art college just one year ago, along with the exhibition’s curator Roisín Bohan.
Although working in very different disciplines, Bren and Luke seek out information about the history of the building in which they exhibit and its environs, and what’s unearthed then informs their work.
“We’re looking for little nuggets of history in the building and its original purpose,” says Luke. “Old buildings are survivors and live on with new purpose.”
The particular nugget they discovered for this exhibition was that Wandesford Quay Galleryoriginally served as a wool and cloth yard a century ago, for then owners,O’Brien Brothers.
Luke’s response to this is the crafting of a collection of ceramic vessels made to echo the shape of wool spools that once would have filled the space.
Delving further into history he discovered the adjacent building was a builders’ merchants, thanks to revisions made in 1915 to Goad Plans which were maps of premises throughout Cork City used at the time for insurance risk assessment. These additional discoveries are also integrated into the exhibition.
“The vessels will be shown on slate and timber as a reference to EH Harte & Sons, the timber and slate yard next door,” he says.
It’s a happy discovery as he professes a dislike of the white cubes synonymous with showing of small art and craft pieces at modern exhibitions.
“People are allowed to touch the vessels, feel the weight of the porcelain.
They have the option of picking them up or not.”
To honour the old and now redundant plans, the vessels will map the building, tracing historical and architectural elements and the surrounding area by sanding and filing outlines of the building and street into the rims.
In this there is even a nod to Luke’s love of technical drawing, a skill he picked up back in his school days.
Bren by contrast makes drawings that are portraits of the city. Confessing to a fascination with buildings, recent work detailing Cork’s courthouse on Washington Street is not from the typical perspective of the front facade, but of the back.
Other work deals with the old distillery bottling plant at the foot of Wyse’s Hill, and the ESB Sub-Station on Caroline Street, a building unremarkable from the exterior while hiding a gem of a space inside. The common thread is a highlighting of what is obscured, forgotten or ignored.
As a non-native Corkonian, Bren demonstrates an uncanny ability to notice the physical markers of the city which locals walk past.
He sees, for example, the beauty of defining structures like Clontarf and Brian Boru bridges where locals might see only road works and diversions.
It’s the application of a different eye with a different view and an intriguing one at that, which expands our own vision, tempered by the notion of time, place and history.
“The work occupies space,” Bren explains. “With an emphasis on things behind the scenes.”
Being untypical interpretations of Cork’s buildings, they could be considered unsettling to those who believe they known them, and now have to consider them from another’s perspective.
“People are interested in other people’s views of things,” says Bren. “This is the city as portrait.”
And there’s certainly a parallel with the work of portrait artists who observe something in the texture or character of a face the sitter is unaware of, and maps it on canvas accordingly, making something new to be seen, examined, commented on.
For All Intents, Constructions and Purposes, CIT Wandesford Quay Gallery, Cork until September 12.
Next week: a visit to the National Craft Gallery
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