Patrick Hall's Cabinets of Everyday Curiosities

For Hughes, Patrick Halls cabinets recall the great elaborately decorated cabinets of the 17th century. Rather than mere decoration, Halls cabinets express a poetry of the everyday that is neither a condescending celebration nor a critical analysis but a deeply personal response to his materiel.

To my mind, Patrick Hall's cabinets recall the great elaborately decorated cabinets of the seventeenth century, made for the royal courts of Europe and the homes of the fabulously wealthy and powerful. As with those earlier cabinets, function, narrowly defined as the provision of storage space, is joyfully subsumed to other agendas. These are aesthetic, decorative and narrative. While those seventeenth century cabinets are encrusted with figures and architectonic detail, and wrought in precious materials, Hall's are decorated with a combination of found objects – often reworked and modelled and common industrial materials such as glass and aluminium. His cabinets do, however, share with them a superfluity of patient skilful and intricate crafting that suggests a heritage in common: that of the hand-crafted object as a work deriving its power from the uniqueness of its material self and an underlying conceptual programme made manifest in decoration.
I use the term decoration advisedly in this context. The exteriors of Hall's cabinets can certainly said to be decorated if that word is taken in a broad and non-trivial sense. His is not decoration as mere surface embellishment, but is rather – and in a great tradition – dense with allusion, illusion and narrative. We can appreciate the overall effect of Hall's decoration for itself, but we can also approach it more closely to read in the intricate detail, as well as in the text, a poetry of the everyday that is neither a condescending celebration nor a critical analysis but a heartfelt and deeply personal response to his materiel. Patrick is often asked why he doesn't make pieces as detached art works, releasing the decoration from its cabinets and from the apparently subservient role as decoration. Part of the answer lies in his working method, to which I shall return below. Another part lies in the intimacy of the context that the cabinets provide. Rather than hold the work up for easy and detached viewing on a wall or plinth, their position as parts of a cabinet encourages us to explore and discover over time sometimes on our hands and knees. As pieces of furniture, albeit odd ones, the works are immediately rendered familiar and intimate, encouraging imaginative as well as physical interaction. Thus, far from being merely arbitrary attachments to pieces of furniture, there is an interdependence that makes the cabinet and its embellishment very much the one work.

The cabinet of curiosity, in the case of Hall's work, is turned inside out. In the decoration the ordinary is celebrated for its true extraordinariness. The 'wonders' are placed on the exterior, while the interiors remain largely plain and open to what uses, if any, their owners decide is appropriate. They may indeed come to store wonders, but equally they may store socks and shirts. The decoration that encrusts these cabinets does not speak of wealth and power, but of the heroism of the everyday and a gentle nostalgia for prosaic pasts that not only cannot be retrieved but which may never have existed. Instead of rare materials, gathered from all over the earth and demonstrating the power to do so, many of Hall's materials are found at second hand dealers and the local tip-shop. He uses such things as nails, clock parts, fishing reels, old records and broken china (many, not uninterestingly, made from materials rare and precious before the industrial era).

Hall's work sits comfortably independent of the two dominant trends in contemporary furniture making; the studio tradition of highly crafted one-off pieces and the more contemporary emphasis on 'design'. In contrast to the fetishisation of the materials and techniques of cabinet-making common in the former, Hall's cabinets are constructed in a simple and robust manner from plywood screwed and glued together, using mechanical drawer runners and commercial castors. There are no immaculate dovetails here, nor is there the glow of perfectly finished wood. However, his work is yet further removed from what I have called 'design', with its emphasis on style and industrial (re)production. While the cabinets themselves could be mass-produced, the all-important encrustation of decoration could not. Indeed, it is here that Hall's work contrasts with both the craft and the design approaches, for both emphasise detailed pre-planning followed by physical execution of the piece as a subsequent and separate phase.

In Patrick Hall's work, the cabinet, its exterior carcass and its doors and drawers are in effect a substrate for applied decoration. This is not to say they are an unimportant part of either the finished piece or of Hall's working method. The grid of drawers and doors on the face of the cabinet is the starting point for working out the particulars of the surface. They provide a framework around which both the theme and the decoration are worked out as a fluid and open process. He begins with an approximate idea or theme for each cabinet that might originate in a line of text that he has written, a recollection, a story that he has heard or an object, or collection of objects that he has seen or collected.

Although the term decoration might seem to imply surface embellishment, in Hall's cabinets its intrusion into the depth and fabric of the cabinets is profound. In his earlier work the embellishment does tend to sit on the surface. In cabinets such as The Chosen Ones, 1994, the decoration is largely pictorial, carved into the surfaces and painted to create a low relief effect similar to a woodblock and, at the same time, to a woodblock print. In his more recent work the fronts of the cabinet drawers and doors have in effect been pushed back, surrounded by a deep frame and glazed to create a space that serves to contain objects, images and text. Each becomes a small exhibition or display space that sits in front of the functional components of the cabinets. Collectively, they become a sort of museum dedicated to the theme or governing idea of the cabinet. The artist's printmaking background continues to tell, though, in his use of sheet metal as a medium for images and text. In The Shelves of Mary Jarvis, 1996, the doors of the cabinet are divided into a regular grid by polished aluminium glazing bars, each compartment containing a preserving bottle in which images and text engraved on sheets of metal are stored. The images are essentially drawings in a simplified graphic style, each an imagined memory with accompanying text, neatly preserved, stored and displayed. In Bedtime Stories, 2001, the metal is engraved as well as sewn together with fine wire to represent quilts, those archetypically unique objects of ordering random scraps and preserving memories.

In some pieces parts of the cabinet are entirely given over to the decoration; as is the case with Of Lost Things, 2001, at the top of which the drawers have retreated to make way for a vitrine containing a diorama of an empty undulating landscape of grass through which a model of a car towing a caravan moves leaving in its wake twin swathes of neatly flattened vegetation. The car and caravan are of a nostalgic 1950s or 60s appearance. To make them, Hall carved their general shape and high relief details in MDF. He then covered this with thin metal sheet, into which the finer details are worked. The model is then rubbed over with pigment that remains in the details, and in the scratches and flaws of the metal, after it has been rubbed back. He uses similar models, in effect three-dimensional drawings, in much of his work. By making them himself he is able to at once give them a unique character as well as a battered archaic quality that renders them oddly timeless. The grass in this cabinet also reveals another aspect of Halls use of found materials. It is made up of thousands of nails of varied type and colour, tinted by different finishes and amounts of rust, driven into and entirely covering the landscape. The illusion is made effective by the contrast between the soft grass alluded to and the hardness of the nails, and yet more so by drawing attention to the sheer multiplicity of objects such as nails, such that we might compare the industrial processes that produce them to the sheer fecundity and redundancy of nature.

Given Hall's extensive use of found materials I was surprised not to find piles of them carefully ordered and categorised when I visited his studio, a shed on the semi-rural fringes of Hobart. His use of such objects begins with an idea or a chance discovery, he then sets about gathering the appropriate material relying in part on what chance throws up and in part on careful selection. He does not, for the most part, keep an extensive 'palette' of such materials, but seeks them as required. His use of found materials varies from the representational, such as the nails for grass in the cabinet described above to the use of whole objects, such as keys, cameras or even photographs.

In the piece Hindsights Gallery of Half Truths, Ordinary Triumphs and Lingering Regrets, 2000, he employs small windows in the front of the cabinet. Each of these contains an assemblage consisting of a found photograph, a lens, and segments of Hall's own text engraved on the glass. The lenses are mounted so as to enlarge parts of the photographs; acting as a metaphor both for the absent camera and its user as well as for our own scrutiny of the images. Ironically the photographs are both found objects and lost memories. The scraps of accompanying text are not about the subjects, but are associative and poetic glimpses that invite us to muse upon possible intimate and personal histories of the people in the images, images that chance has made available for incorporation into the cabinet and hence for our own speculation. In the upper part of this cabinet, cameras similar, maybe, to those used to take the pictures are displayed as in a museum of outdated technology, as lost and disconnected in their way as the photos beneath.

The photographs touch upon a central theme informing all of Hall's work: redundancy. The small chest of drawers, Archive of Little Losses, 2003 is an austere work with five drawers of equal size, each glass-fronted and framed in brass. Behind the glass is a patterned surface with an almost marbled appearance created by an arrangement of densely packed nails. In the centre of each is a small framed area: four contain keys for which there is no longer a lock; the middle one contains a lock for which there is no key. Each has a new life, however, as the handles for the drawers. The top of the piece is a glass vitrine containing a low hill – once again vegetated with nails upon which stands a lonely and seemingly lost robot made from scraps of metal and clock parts holding a fifth redundant key. The sad robot, a sort of Patrick Hall everyman, is a delightful demonstration of Hall's capacity to infuse the inanimate with emotion and meaning through the highly considered and poetic assemblage of industrial detritus. This is a crafting that operates within the constraints of found materials, drawing upon their randomness to create that which is both unique and profoundly of the moment of their having been drawn together. Even if the possibility existed to replicate this cabinet and its lonely robot, such replication would render the effort meaningless.

The theme of redundant objects is further explored in Silent Recordings, 2003. Here the windows in the fronts of the cabinets have expanded to the edges of the drawers and doors. In each Hall has taken old 75 rpm records, cut them into a spiral, and set them, fragmented, expanded and reassembled in red resin. In the glass behind which the records are mounted blocks of text have been engraved, imagined fragments of memories or situations suggesting the unique trajectories of such mass-produced objects through time and as they intersect with people's lives. Hall recreates the randomness of these intersections – imaginatively and literally in the making of his cabinets. Old shellac records are used not just because of their archaic qualities and associations, because they have a much cleaner finish when cut on the band saw than vinyl. They also have a thickness that lends them a greater weight and materiality. These are important considerations for Hall when he is making his work, and are integral to the crafting process. A recent piece, Bone China, 2004, incorporates pieces of crockery that have been reshaped into human bones. Hall has carefully exploited the existing shapes of the fragments so that they are both representations of bones and yet remain obviously fragments of lost and broken dinnerware.

To return to the comparison between Patrick Hall's work and the richly decorated cabinets of the seventeenth century: both have the hand made built into their very logic. Function is for neither the primary purpose, but rather has been subsumed by the decoration that renders them truly unique. In the latter case the cabinets are very much public displays of power, demonstrating a command of materials, skill and the sophistication of both maker and patron. Patrick Hall's work, in contrast, arises out of a deeply personal response to his subject, the humble and prosaic lives of ordinary people and ordinary things. His method of decorating the cabinets, an open and fluid process structured by the grid of the front, is necessitated by this highly personal and emotional response to subject and materials: both of which are brought into such intimate contact as to often merge into one. It is his close and careful crafting that gives his materials life and his ideas breath, and like the lives that populate the dreamed pasts in his work, they are rendered unique by the constant intersection of chance and choice: by the moment of their being.