Portfolio @Solomon - New Gallery of Irish Craft & Design on Dublin's Grafton Street

The Five-Star Westbury Hotel is one of the few institutions whose million euro collection of Irish art can rival that of The Merrion Hotel

It's amongst this collection of sublime pieces by Sir John Lavery, Michael Scott, Louis Le Brocquy and other important Irish artists in the Westbury's timelessly elegant open-plan drawing rooms that you can make the best possible first impression on your future mother-in-law by taking her for afternoon tea, looking out over all the goings-ons of Grafton Street. It's somehow both low-key and discretely opulent.

And so of course, it's perfectly fitting that sitting immediately downstairs from the hotel's tasteful drawing rooms is Solomon Fine Art, established here since 1981.

The existing Solomon Gallery, opening onto Balfe Street through an all-glass facade, yet is easily hidden from sight behind the flower stalls and buskers at the junction of Balfe and Grafton Streets. With a well-established reputation built over more than thirty years as one of Ireland's leading contemporary art galleries, the gallery has a particular emphasis on sculptural three-dimensional pieces, and tonight, they open a second branch, a year pop-up, prominently situated just steps aw the entrance to the Westbury Mall Arcade. It's no accident that the new gallery coincides with the Year of Irish Design 2015, of which this is the fourth major event.

This gallery is being run in close collaboration with both the Design and Crafts Council of Ireland and the Doyle Collection, owners of the Westbury Hotel, the doorway of which lies immediately between the existing Solomon Gallery on the left and this new one on the right, behind a similar wall of plate glass onto Balfe Street, opening into the Westbury Mall.


Opening tonight and running in both the new and the existing Solomon Galleries until March 14th, is PORTFOLIO: Ceramics, the new gallery's inaugural exhibition, showcasing the work of twenty ceramicist makers from the Design and Crafts Council of Ireland's PORTFOLIO program, a curated critical selection of the best of Irish craft and design across the disciplines of Ceramics, Jewellery, Glass, Metals, Paper, Textiles, Calligraphy, Furniture, Woodwork, Basketry. Tying in with the year of Irish Design, this gallery will show work from across each of PORTFOLIO's disciplines, offering visitors the chance to purchase one-off or limited edition pieces from a group of internationally collected & emerging practitioners, all working to the highest standards of design quality and technical skill.

Over 2015, both in Ireland and internationally, the year of Irish Design will feature both exhibitions and events that build awareness of international design in Ireland, and will also bring the best of Irish design abroad to the design capitals of the world. #ID2015, which will be overseen by Professor Alex Milton, and has been convened by the Design & Crafts Council of Ireland in partnership Enterprise Ireland, the Department of Enterprise, Jobs and Innovation, and the Department of Foreign Affairs, as well as several private partners, of which the Doyle Collection is official the accommodation partner. The aim is that ID2015 will serve as a catalyst for the flourishing of creativity rather than a one-off event, building a momentum of energy and passion for design in Ireland, and design from Ireland that goes beyond 2015 and beyond our shores.

The twenty ceramicists featured in this exhibition are:

Jack Doherty, Andrew Ludick, Mandy Parslow, Alison Kay, Kate O’Kelly, Nuala O’Donovan, Magda Bethani, Grainne Watts, Michael Moore, Peter Fulop, Mike Byrne, Jennifer Hickey, Adam Frew, Juliet Ball, Claire Molloy, Katherine Standen, Isobel Egan, Freda Rupp, Nicole Portlock, Karen Morgan and Jennifer Hickey.

The fusion of craftsmanship and artistry sets apart all of the makers, across each of the disciplines celebrated in PORTFOLIO, and this exhibition, as no doubt the ones that will folow it, demonstrates over eighty combination of considered discipline and artistic flourish, allowing inspirations to be distilled with skill into evocative sensory experiences by the viewer of the finished piece. All works of craft are to an extent three-dimensional, in that even on flat surfaces the treatments and processes impact texture and patina. 

A work can often be evaluated for its gorgeous textures: both crackled and smooth; its unique colours: intense and demure; its composition or form: expressive or restrained, but to see the best in each piece requires a collaboration between maker and gallery curator. Working with the piece, the constraints of space and light, the curator brings their own eye and talent into play to enhance the beauty of the work by showing details we would find difficult to notice in the artists' studio or even in the source of the piece's inspiration. In my own work, I look often at the things that are hidden in plain sight, and that can be hard to notice. That's something that many artists do, not just in the visual arts but also in theatre and literature. 

By placing a work alongside that of other makers, the curator establishes the common threads of quality in craftsmanship and artistry, and that's something that Tara Murphy and her team at Solomon Fine Arts have pulled off with great aplomb, having taken the keys of the new gallery just a few weeks before, and have not only curated a fantastic show across their two spaces, but have also worked to a tight budget and timeline to turn a former inward looking retail outlet into a showcase for the highest level of craft.

Some highlights for me where the mechanical and organic Pinecone Heart, fired in unglazed porcelain by Nuala O'Donovan (N.F.S);  Alison Kay's dark bronze-coloured ceramic vessels and forms (€500-€700); the shimmeringly smooth smoke-fired 'Obvoid Pome' pieces by Nicole Portlock (€350); Gráinne Watt's Accretion Series of black and grey porcelain vessels are reminiscent of panels of sea foam, looking out over the ocean from a ship in the night (€340-€400). The gorgeous craftsmanship and process of hand-thrown pottery is at the fore in the work of Jack Doherty and Mandy Parslow, with one of my favourite pieces at the show being a barrel vessel by Mandy Parslow, the inside of which reminded me of cooking for a party, emulating the surface of large tins of coconut milk in the neat rippled surface that comes from bringing up the walls of the vessel on the potter's wheel.

The gorgeous surface patination of these pieces is achieved by the use of a salt glaze, explained the chairperson of the Year of Irish Design 2015, Laura Magahy, whose own beautifully earthy handmade pots inspired by the market district of Dublin between O'Connell Street and Smithfield, won highly commended at the Showcase Best Overall Product Awards. Doing anything in a kiln, as anyone who has dabbled in pottery will now, can be a difficult process, requiring the development of a strong technical working knowledge, and the addition of salt-glazes, done while the pot is in the kiln at the highest temperature, requires a high level of finesse to get right, and is impossible to replicate, so if you see it, buy it, there are no two the same. I'm a sucker for all forms of glaze and patina, and Kathleen Standen's Blue and Green Vessels in porcelain and clay with organic additions entice the eye with a gorgeous exterior resembling rough poured concrete, and a smooth and lustrous interior that's entirely different.

Kate O'Kelly's 'Tubular' slip-cast earthenware (€4000) is robust, bright and fun, and she also had more accessibly priced pieces at ca. €400, whereas Jennifer Hickey's delicate petals of bone china and porcelain (€2200 - €3600) are ethereal and light, like a hybrid of cherry blossom petals and crunchy autumn leaves, but feel enticingly forbidden from touch. Adam Frew's painterly pots, contrastingly have that same playfulness and robustness, inviting you to touch and feel the form moreso than the surface, with patterns applied in strokes, crackles and scratches. My favourite of these was 'Pot with Sprigged Pattern & Gold (€375). Andrew Ludick's are similar in approach, but totally different in style and form, with an almost Alice in Wonderland quality to them, a combination of smooth surfaces and undulating rims, especially on his pitchers (€220-€300).

My favourite piece of all was a tie between one of Mandy Parslow's pots and Magda Bethani's Bowl with Twisted Branch on Stone (€750) for it's use of shadow to create a constantly shifting story on the surface of the simple surface of the pot, almost like a cast-iron Le Creuset pan beneath it. Both of these pieces remind me simultaneously of two things - Firstly, journeys and explorations, discoveries of peculiar shades of lichen and fluffy scratchy moss, or of huge rocks by the sea, carved from a thousand year's waves, and then also of the comfort of my kitchen - not of the joy of eating, but of the joy of cooking. They become canvasses for so many of my own thoughts. The idea that you can have a conversation with a piece of art is something I really enjoy about experiencing it, and my own art too one of my greatest pleasures is when it becomes that for others.

With prices varying from €30 - €4680, there really is something that everyone will enjoy, and so whether you're going in for a weekend brunch to Balfe's, or using the ground floor of the hotel as a shortcut between Grafton and South William Streets, I'd really encourage the detour to both galleries, maybe on the same day, or maybe one at a time, and if you do end up passing through the quirky Westbury Mall, you must also check out Parfumarija, a rather lovely shop selling the most unusual perfumes, and not all at stratospheric prices, Stonechat Jewellers just next door to the new gallery, where you can pick up some gorgeous pieces by Helena Malone and Paula Rowan, an Irish authority on quality leather gloves. The ladies also rave about Susan Hunter's tiny lingerie store just opposite Stonechat, and with the Solomon gallery (who also advise on art collecting, sourcing, purchasing and selling) now part of the mix, the mall has become almost a mini-university of style and taste.

A collaboration with The Doyle Collection

Unit 2, Westbury Mall, Balfe Street, Dublin 2
Gallery hours: Tuesday – Friday 10am – 5.30pm / Saturday 11am – 4pm