New Directions in Glass by Sarah Margolis-Pineo
It is no secret that craft is making a comeback. From the 2014 Whitney Biennial to your neighborhood supermarket, the term craft is being used to spur critical discourse as well as fetishize consumable goods. Throughout the previous century, craft existed as a slippery, nebulous thing, lurking on the fringes of industry and Fine Art. But with the 21st century, craft has entered a new era of post-disciplinary, post-object practice, in which social activism, performance, DIY tactics, and new technologies are made tangible, and given new meaning, through materials and processes traditionally associated with craft. Despite this new conceptual underpinning, intense, media-specific training is required for proficiency in any craft.
Of all these distinct mediums, glass has garnered the least attention within the scope of contemporary art. We are accustomed to seeing innovative exhibitions of fiber and ceramics in museums and international art fairs, but surveys of contemporary glass are confined predictably to the work of Chihuly and his Venice-trained contemporaries. Further, jewelry, wood furniture, cloth-goods and clay are staples of the artisan marketplace. Once taken home, they give shape to our lives, becoming intimate acquaintances through daily use.
Glass, however, remains relegated to the pedestal and sideboard. Static and inaccessible, so much of what defines contemporary glass art has been inherited from the object-driven agenda of the studio craft movement. Twentieth-century glass separated itself from the applied arts and the avant garde by perpetuating a mystique of preciousness and aesthetic transcendence. This ideology continues to flourish in the insular institutions of art glass: the media-specific museums, galleries, and residencies that generate much of the discourse around glass-based work. We are taught to perceive glass as the product of a magical process—the perfect meeting of silica and fire, massaged to life by a spritely man in bright trousers and an eye patch. At a time when other craft-based disciplines were crossing-genres to collide with design and contemporary art, the dissemination of glass has remained resolutely apart. And so it has been, until now.
Contemporary glass is witnessing a call to action. The field has become both laboratory and playground to a cohort of emerging artists experimenting with the material and conceptual potential of the medium. There has been a move away from the object. Glassmakers are eschewing the pedestal in favor of installation, video, intervention, and performance. Many are taking on the idea of craft—the history, context, and process of glass itself—as the conceptual foundation of their work. Craft has become a tool to investigate and open up the field. It has the potential to promote alternate ways of perceiving and working with glass, rather than functioning as a discrete classification unto itself. Further, the relationship of glass to everyday life provides artists with a vehicle to look outside traditional disciplinary categories, to explore how other institutional frameworks—industry, environmental biology, physics, urbanism, etc.—can inform their practices. A perceptual shift is underway.
It's an exciting time to be working in glass.
This article features four glass artists based in the Pacific Northwest, who are expanding the boundaries and language of glass art in innovative ways. The first is Matthew Szösz, a recent transplant to Seattle from the Bay Area, whose manipulation of molten glass is poised between control and risk. Szösz's series of Inflatables is perhaps his most recognized body of work. Created by pumping compressed air into fused sheets of hot glass, the forms that emerge are surprising—pillowy tessellations, simultaneously buoyant and fixed.
The Inflatables series speaks to Szösz's interest in experimentation. Much of his work investigates the materiality of glass itself. He explores the medium's unforeseen potential through systematic tests as well as disorderly manipulation. As an artist, Szösz embraces chaos and accident. Failure is never an outcome if the end result of one's work is unknown. His series of Expandables, including the piece Clothesline (2012), proves failure and success to be blurred quantities within a truly experimental methodology. Presented on four-channel video, Clothesline documents Szösz in his studio heating strips of found glass windowpanes to fusing temperature—1600º. As the glass emerges from the kiln, it is hung on a mechanized clothesline to contract and crumble as it solidifies. The shards rain intermittently from the suspended installation, breaking loose and hitting the floor with a distinctive splintering sound.
Szösz is opening up the field of ephemeral glass. Seemingly a contradiction, Szösz's work proves that artists can move beyond the material confines of the media. This summer, he will be in residence at STARworks in North Carolina, and spending one month in Belgium as the recipient of the International Glass Prize. At both sites, Szösz will develop a project that brings together sound and glass, investigating the idea of the musical frequency as material.
Anna Mlasowsky similarly explores the relationship between material and the ephemeral. She is intrigued by invisible frequencies—resonances that are detected occasionally by the ears and skin as they pass through our bodies in waves. Her intent is to capture these invisible forces and, using glass, render it material. To achieve this, she embarks on multi-year research endeavors to develop new ways of incorporating sound into the production of glass. Often, her approach is cross-disciplinary, leveraging digital technology alongside traditional kiln-forming technique.
Sound Visions (2013) was an early piece within this body of work. Mlasowsky began by adding glass powder to water, manipulating it by hand to create a pattern of waves—like sand on an ocean floor. She preserved these vibrations by setting them on glass sheets that were fused in a kiln. What emerged were four white plates that ripple like lunar tide pools—simultaneously natural and extraordinary. Mlasowsky digitized each image using a 3D scanner, and assigned a corresponding sound to each iridescent wave. Ultimately, the glass sculptures were presented with an accompanying soundscape arranged by Thorsten Schepers. In her installation titled Resonance (2013), Mlasowsky took a different approach to exploring the aural potential of glass. After distilling the approximately 200-resonant frequencies within the audible range for a sheet of aluminum, she played each frequency through a speaker that was attached to the aluminum plate. By using glass powder that was later kiln-formed, she was able to create a solid shape—a dark, web-like screen—to embody each sound.
Currently, Mlasowsky is pursuing her MFA at the University of Washington. She recently received a Glass Art Society Technology Advancement Grant to research a new pate de verre technique that uses 3D modeling and rapid prototyping in lieu of traditional molds. This project, which has the potential to mark a huge technological shift in the field of glassmaking, will be featured in an exhibition opening July 1, 2015 at Bullseye Projects (Portland, OR).
Despite the lure of the digital, Andy Paiko is a glass artist who remains entirely enthralled by the technology of centuries past—the mechanical. Paiko is recognized for his flawless glassblowing technique in the tradition of Czech and Venetian artisans. What makes his work decidedly contemporary is not his medium, but the conceptual threads underlying his practice. Working alone in his Portland, Oregon studio, Paiko produces objects so tightly wound, their component parts lock together like the cogs of an intricate machine.
His recent piece, Pumpjack (2014), incorporates wood, brass, and leather into a composition of blown, sculpted, and cut clear glass. A miniature version of the monumental pump-jacks seen in the oil producing regions of the south and west, Paiko's sculpture inhales upward, and deflates back, glimmering with a sense of playfulness—a wholly theatrical thing. Like his earlier Spinning Wheel (2007), Pumpjack draws you in with its mesmerizing motion and keeps you enthralled by the imaginative potential of the medium. The sculptures modulate with routine whirs and thrusts that, like the capacity to work glass, point to human mastery over the natural world. Both real-life referent and sculptural representation signify the transformation of raw material. They operate simultaneously as mechanical mysteries and human-engineered marvels.
In addition to his kinetic instruments, Paiko also creates intricate chandlers, bell jars, and other sculptural works. From 2009-2013, he collaborated with sound artist Ethan Rose on Transference, a room-sized glass harmonica that hummed and sang on mechanized tones. Like the sound emitted by moistened finger on the rim of a wine glass, Paiko was able to generate a range of tones from the contact between a cloth hammer and the side of a rotating glass bowl. The overall affect was transcendent—like music emitting from light itself.
There will always be some sense of magic in the alchemical processes of working with glass. At once scientific and strange, this reconciliation of opposites is at the center of Emily Nachison's artistic practice. Trained in fiber, Nachison now works largely with kiln-formed glass. Her inspiration comes from diverse sources including New Age pseudo-spirituality, metallurgy, fairy tales, and Victorian decorative arts. She interweaves traces of narrative with suggestions of natural form to create large-scale installations that suggest a tangled wildness—a ghostly apparition of nature, rendered in delicate glass.
Nachison's recent exhibition at Bullseye Projects (Portland, OR), "Dark Ecologies," (on view at Bullseye Resource Center in New York, August 25 – November 14, 2015), featured new work integrating objects cast in glass with elemental materials such as leather, horsehair, and stainless steel. Garland (2014), Crystal Cord (2014), and Counting Cord (2014) are a trio of larger-than-life necklaces weighted down with heavy increments of branch-like forms. The translucent fragments are strung together like the beads of an abacus or the bones of a spinal cord—a very intentional appeal to our visceral senses that resonates with an uncanny perceptual shift.
Nachison forces her viewers to become aware of their embodied presence in the gallery—through the tactility of the works themselves, or as a result of one's close proximity to a material emblematic of fragility and preciousness. Her installation Metonic Transfiguration (2014), is comprised of a series of cast glass specimens hanging delicately in mid-air from pressed-glass plates. Through the work's narrative sequence, a crystalline fragment transforms into a branch, which evolves slowly into a mushroom, and then to a murky pool collected on the bottom of the plate. Based on the lifespan of the ink cap mushroom, this installation points to the glassmaking process itself—its alchemy, and its potential to transform raw, elemental earth into something beautiful, entirely unexpected, and a bit magical.