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Claudia Dalby: "An Artist Makes a Room His Canvas, and Swathes of Fabric His Paints"

Eric N. Mack, Style waits for no one, 2022.
Installation view, The Douglas Hyde Gallery of Contemporary Art, 2022.
Image courtesy the artist and The Douglas Hyde, Dublin. Photography by Denis Mortell. 

Artist Eric N. Mack says he thought of the exhibition room of the Douglas Hyde Gallery in Trinity College Dublin as a canvas and fabric as his paint, when he started working on it back in February.

In the room on Tuesday, colourful and patterned fabric cut in from above and across it, segmenting the hangar-like space into pockets, and guiding the visitor into nooks and crannies.

From the staircase that leads into the centre of the room, mustard and cream charmeuse silk flows downwards in front of a photograph of Mack’s sister, Gabrielle.

It blocks the lower half of the photo so there’s no clear focal point, and the visitor has to move around the room for a better look.

The draped opaque fabrics interact with the photographs like a screen, said Mack, over Zoom from New York on Friday. “It’s able to lend itself. It doesn’t obscure but it kind of operates alongside what’s there.”

“I wanted to address the height of the space, the height of the ceiling,” he says. “How that could just kind of soar into the ground of the exhibition.”

Red threads ping from wall to wall, suspending the rectangles of fabric to curve into corners and shrug against each other.

Piles of scrapped fabric idle on the floor, and twisted balls of fabric soak inside pint glasses lined up against the wall. Hair-like strings of wool hang from each step of the staircase.

The exhibition, called Scampolo!, will run in the Douglas Hyde Gallery until 29 May.

A Painter without Paint

Mack says he considers himself a painter. But Scampolo! doesn’t have any paint on show.

It has pint glasses of water, piles of fabric, laundry bags.

“Art doesn’t have to be grandiose,” says Mack. “It’s like, really approachable. And also still has a kind of question to it.”

Because, he says, “what if you felt compelled to, like, make a gesture, but you didn’t have the art store to go to to buy the Winsor and Newton paint or something?”

A painting is made of fabric stretched across wood and covered in colour, which is echoed in Mack’s exhibition, says Georgina Jackson, director of the Douglas Hyde Gallery. “It’s kind of like, let’s push that out to the absolute extremities.”

Like a painter, Mack envisages the impact of the colour and texture of his materials on the blank canvas of the room to create a cohesive image, he says.

A wild fuschia pink fabric is suspended across the huge room, offset by a neutral beige hanging along beside it. “Their overlay could create another kind of colour and experience,” he says.

He hoped to point out a connection between the visitor and the artwork they’re looking at, he says. “The fabric on display, the fabric on the floor, and also the fabric the viewer’s wearing.”

The rectangle shapes of the photographs match too, with the brutal squareness of the exhibition room, he says, all connections that help to make the abstract nature of the exhibition more tangible.

Changing the Room

Artists always change the space with their work, said Jackson, director of the Douglas Hyde Gallery on Tuesday, while walking under the web of red thread that suspends the fabrics above.

The gallery invites them to do that, she says, like by giving them the keys and letting them work there. “It’s something I love about this space, is that it can kind of expand and contract so much.”

The Douglas Hyde Gallery was built in 1978, and was designed by Paul Koralek, who also designed the Berkeley Library building across the square of Trinity College Dublin, says Jackson.

It has the same brutalist design, she says, looking down at the large exhibition room from the top of the staircase. “A lot of really incredible, beautiful concrete.”

Which helps to create a blank canvas that each individual artist brings a fresh pair of eyes to, she says, and that brings excitement for the visitor. “They kind of don’t know what to expect.”

Like when you get down to the exhibition space and notice that fabric is hanging off the stairs. “All of a sudden, you realise that you’ve been kind of walking down this structure that actually is like part of an artwork,” Jackson says.

Everyday Materials

Mack arrived in Dublin in February only with his own luggage, he says. He planned to find the fabrics and threads for the exhibition around Dublin and further afield, in stores and fishing-tackle shops.

At one point, Jackson and Mack visited the factory of Emblem Weavers to get a tour and pick up scraps of fabric – the namesakes for his exhibition, scampolo being Italian for remnants.

It’s a good sign when fabric shops sell their remnants, he says. “That there’s a recycling of material, that every little bit had significance and you know, could be something else.”

The piles of fabric on the floor of the gallery are a link to the month he spent using it as a studio, he says.

Mack starts making work on the floor, and materials are eventually built up or suspended, he says, so it made sense that some things would stay on the floor.

“You know, to create this kind of visual hierarchy, that there were like layers of experience that the viewer would have,” he says.

Since he wasn’t going to be in Dublin for the duration of the exhibition, Mack left some of his own clothes scattered in the piles around the gallery. “I think as like a surrogate for myself.”

There’s the photograph of his sister, too, styled by a collaborator of Mack’s. “It ends up being like this image that collapses all of these points of collaboration.”

One image, hidden under the stairs, is of a Balenciaga top designed by French designer Nicolas Ghesquière, a burgundy and cream one that looks like the delicate exposure of an interior world, says Mack.

“I think it’s about a thought process, and how beautiful it is to wear something that somebody thought about,” he says. “What it comes down to is like, what you select is the thing that you wear, it expresses something about you, or that you want to express.”