The seductive beauty of glass becomes conceptual…

Art of Glass was an exciting exhibition of various leading British glass artists recently curated at The National Centre for Craft and Design, Sleaford, Lincs. The NCCD and National Museums Scotland worked together to explore the work of established and emerging glass artists working in Britain today. I’ve made a personal selection from the work on display, partly based on text panels in the show.

Beauty Tricks, 2018, stained glass, Pinkie Maclure

Scottish artist Pinkie Maclure says “I find medieval stained glass bewitching and daring…I want to elevate the medium into a contemporary art form, using its seductive beauty and historical associations to stimulate debate and to tell my own stories.”

Maclure marries traditional craft techniques with a very personal radical approach to stained glass. Her pieces often have a dark aesthetic and humour which is able to create a social commentary on today’s society and our impact on the environment.

Detail of Beauty Tricks

Beauty Tricks explores the human and environmental impact of the beauty industry and the pressure many women place on themselves and their daughters. The skilful use of glass painting, etching and selective cracking of the glass components creates a powerful narrative about these pressures and human outcomes. However, there is humour also woven into the stories and this lightens the mood and maintains our interest in the serious message. This is similar to the playful imagery of much medieval stained glass telling biblical stories to folk who read only by pictures.

Medieval biblical stories from Strasbourg Cathedral

Glass is an alien material, says Harry Morgan, it has unusual behaviour and paradoxical properties. His monumental sculptures are the result of lots of painstaking experimentation. His pieces in the show, Dichotomy 1, 2017 and Cuddle, 2018, are made of concrete and glass and show the polarity of the substances but also the individual qualities of each material. In both pieces we see the strength of glass in a new way, supporting and holding the heavy concrete with the ease of vertical power, like tensile steel.

Morgan heats and stretches long strings of glass along the studio floor and bundles them together like straw on thatched roofs. The beauty comes from the unexpectedness of such a juxtaposition, a reversal of preconceptions, and a new understanding of how glass behaves. But that’s pretty much it.

Dichotomy1, 2017, Cuddle, 2018, glass and concrete

Gayle Matthias is drawn to the enigmatic quality of the material of glass. “It represents both fragility and danger and I enjoy exploring both these qualities in my work.” She likes to create a tension between glass and other materials to “exaggerate glass’s vulnerable yet threatening nature.”

With this piece (Land Mark 2) I feel a satisfying contradiction between front and side positions – the almost metallic looking flank of the side is replaced by a single end rod when you change position, eloquently transforming your mental picture of the glass material in the world.

Land Mark 2, 2016, cast glass, found object, tape, sheet glass, wax, graphite

Jeffrey Sarmiento’s “Rubber Factory”, 2015, seeks to uncover hidden narratives from overlooked architecture in our industrial landscapes. It creates a 3-D illusion from a flat surface which cleverly changes as you walk around it. The highly reflective nature of the fused glass with the stylised 2-point perspective plays with your eyes and suggests various places the building could inhabit, quite a spooky experience. An original use of the glass medium.

Jeffrey Sarmiento, Rubber Factory, waterjet cut and fused glass, 2015

Karlyn Sutherland’s work continues this architectural theme, also using fused glass, but in much more subdued tones and a hand-worked satin finish which eliminates reflections to create a quieter effect. “The qualities…of glass allow me to express ideas and experiences of architectural atmosphere, space and light in a way that no other material can quite achieve or permit.”

Karlyn Sutherland, Harbour Road, Lybster(4), 2018

This work represents a physically unattaneable perspective and perhaps a sense of spatial disconnection as you try to make sense of the layers to create a 3-D world. Is that a shadow or a penetration from one plane to another? And how are the sections joined together? The work conjours up thoughtful questions and leaves one slightly bemused – a good feeling.

Erin Dickson’s Chinese Whispers, 2018, is a series of works done by several different glass practitioners, united by the same brief, but passed from one to the next in a unique way. The ongoing project is a collaboration between Dickson and several international glass artists in the reinterpretation of a historic glass vessel.

Chinese Whispers, 2018, hot sculpted and blown glass

Working with the Venetian maestro Silvano Signoretto, Dickson commissioned him to replicate a historic Venetian vessel she saw in the Murano Museum. Signoretto then had to write a 100 word description of the process to be passed to the next artist, translated into their language.

The resulting sequence gives a fascinating insight into human diversty and the impossibility of ever creating an identical form. It seems a process designed to give false parameters to allow for human ingenuity to push the boundaries of good taste with each successive work…

Talking of taste, the final artist I’m considering uses the myth of the origins of the classic shape for wine bottles, suggesting that it was first produced by Leith Glassworks in Edinburgh. His work, The Leith Pattern, 2018, consists of a digitally originated cast glass vase and a video HD animation.

For Geoffrey Mann, “glass is otherworldly…it embodies the materiality of time through its own state as an amorphous solid; a living material caught in a state of momentary pause.”

These works complement each other to play with the idea of glass a fluid material, a mysterious combination of solid and liquid which is almost impossible to capture. There is narrative in his work too, as the glass morphs from one shape into another and back again into another almost the same but not quite, then totally different. The unpredictability of the forms is part of the seduction of the material – any shape is possible but not too many are good to look at!

Mann’s work seems to transcend the need for a traditional aesthetic – the work is truly conceptual as it invites us to think into the material and imagine we are inside it pushing and pulling it as we please. This is a new kind of seduction.

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