An ode to handiwork — Patrick Coughlin’s Tools of the Trade at NAPOLEON

[Noreen nervously navigates a show designed to play in the space between utility and decoration. — the Artblog editors]

In the narrow gallery space of NAPOLEON this month, the mixed-media sculptures of Patrick Coughlin crowd the space in conversation with the past, present, and art-making itself. Imbued with a strong sense of tradition and nostalgia, Tools of the Trade presents a collection of tools, some obsolete, some recognizable–but on a whimsically large scale.

Playfully amplifying the past

Iron and tools
The central scultpure of Tools of the Trade.

Coughlin, holding both a BFA and an MFA in ceramics, displays his background in hands-on craft. Like his prior work, the art of Tools of the Trade takes a nostalgic approach to objects of the past. Conversely, each object in this new exhibition quite accurately represents a tool, elevated by the space of the gallery and elegant craftsmanship.


Upon seeing the show in person, the objects were much larger than I had imagined. The central sculpture of the room–an enormous replica of an old-fashioned iron–greets the viewer with its unexpected size. To its left hang a mallet and wrench, seemingly made for the hands of a giant. On the right, row after row of ceramic replicas of similar tools occupy the entire wall, forming a 3-dimensional wallpaper.

“Mallet” and “Wrench”.

The collective enormity of the objects dwarfs the gallery space entirely. Despite the impressiveness of their size, the objects clearly depict useless tools, playfully transfiguring the practical into impracticality, reminiscent of Man Ray’s sculpture “Cadeau” (1921). In the contemporary world of machine fabrication and electronics, these handheld objects have become virtually obsolete as well. Yet the artist treats the outmoded tools kindly, even honoring them–the mallet and wrench are displayed prominently, encircled by a decorative, painted taupe frame.

Materials and an anxiety-inducing display

“Mortar & Pestle”.

The materials used–ceramic and furniture upholstery–further render the objects completely inutile. The ornate, ceramic handles of the wrench and mallet, imitating carved wood, could never be a practical support for the heavy, iron heads of the tools. An overly plush cylinder of old-fashioned upholstery serves as the iron’s handle, adding a sense of comfort to the otherwise hard, heavy materials. The artist further plays with this sense of delicacy and ornateness through scale–though ceramic is a delicate material, the amount used makes each object incredibly heavy.


Although each household tool could never serve a practical use in a home, Coughlin pairs the objects with a domestic display. The two free-standing sculptures–the mortar and pestle, and the iron–sit on tall, thin oak tables, whose carved legs are reminiscent of antique, country-style furniture. Their massive size leaves no space on the tables’ tops, and the thin, spindle-like legs threaten to collapse under the heavy-seeming objects. The viewer moves tentatively around the central object, with the impending fear of bumping the timid supporting table and sending the iron crashing to the ground.

The anxiety of this juxtaposition, coupled with the homey, ornate, antiquated objects, stirs an intriguing dialogue, especially for visual artists viewing the show. As makers, tools are essential for the production of physical media. With this in mind, Tools of the Trade reads as both a nostalgic homage to handiwork and a whimsical reimagination of its tools.

Tools of the Trade by Patrick Coughlin is on display at Napoleon Gallery from Feb. 6th – Feb. 27th, 2015.