ART REVIEW: "Patrick Coughlin, Tools of Trade"-Napoleon Gallery, Philadelphia

Where is the line between art and craft? Is there a distinction between them? Patrick Coughlin’s Tools of Trade, which consists of seven sculptural works depicting and referencing various kinds of tools, encourages the viewer to challenge their own definitions of these two loaded terms. Coughlin, who has an agricultural background, has abstracted and played with the form, scale, and materials of various ordinary tools in order to question their role in a fine art setting. Perhaps he is suggesting, through his manipulation of the media and models, that ordinary tools themselves are in fact art, in addition to helping to facilitate art, and those who use them are artists.
Auger Cabinet

Looking around the gallery, it wouldn’t seem too far off to assume that Coughlin has created a sort of chronology of the forms of devices in places. On the left wall an oversized hammer (Hammer) and a pipe wrench (Pipe Wrench) hang, each with intricately carved handles that simulate wood down to the very grain, though they are made of clay. On the opposite wall are rows and rows of modern looking household tools all painted white, which together form an installation entitled Tools of Trade. This juxtaposition highlights the transition and evolution of tools from ancient-looking to modern: the two large tools have a Celtic look in their carved-leaf handles and large, blocky heads; while the rows of white tools bring to mind mass-produced and identical tools of the modern world.

The theme of various settings conjured by the oversized tools is sustained by The Mortar and Pestle, whose cracked and faded white-on-ochre terracotta patina implies a detour into Italy, or at least Italianate influences. The blue-flowered china interior of Auger Cabinet conjures up a whiff of French or Chinese inspiration. Also of note is Coughlin’s almost whimsical use of fabric in several of the works, including in Pestle and The Iron, the large centerpiece of Tools of Trade, a massive combination of wood, fabric and foam whose flowery carved handle simulates wrought-iron. The fabric here symbolizes the raw material that can be transformed by tools.
Pipe Wrench

Throughout the past two years, digging deeply and thoughtfully into the clay and wood that constitute his main mediums in this show, Coughlin has artfully created a body of work that manages to reinterpret the tool as an art object, increasing the scale of many of the works in order to entreat the viewer to view them differently, out of their original contexts. He romanticizes and elevates the idea of manual labor and work that does not seem inherently artistic—if tools can be made into art through enlargement and abstraction, then is the person who uses the tool as originally intended an artist?