Tour de Force:
in case of emergency break glass
Megsie’s catalogue essay
It mustn’t be imagined that Tour de Force is yet another in a long line of group exhibitions purporting to showcase ‘the best of’ Australian contemporary glass practice – on the contrary, it is deliberately distanced from such superficial, though standard, hyperbole. What the show does represent, however, is a line of demarcation between the conventional status quo that currently appears to hold the Australian studio glass scene in thrall and our (now ever so slightly flagging) expectations regarding the next wave of creative regeneration. Glass has become disappointingly same-same; and while imitation is clearly considered an acceptable, and often sincere, form of flattery – notwithstanding that appropriation is a post-modern art form in itself – it doesn’t, by any stretch of the imagination, enrich the ‘gene pool’.
In many ways Australian studio glass is a victim of its own success. A model (even pampered) child of the times, it’s been tainted like everything else by the rampant global consumerism of the past decade or so and hooked on that most fateful of homogenizing agents, bourgeois aspiration. The progressive spirit that spawned the pioneer movement in the 1960-70’s has been all but suppressed by arch conservatism and the truckling for approbation and (small-f, surely) fame. But patronage has always been a tricky business in the arts, and one suspects that creative integrity will always remain key. So how did we get to the stalemate of derivation and corporate ennui that presently characterizes mainstream contemporary glass, and is there a way back to the wonder and the joy? To the magic.
It is rather ironic that the pinnacle of success these days in studio glass appears to be the ability to produce a technically perfect object with the high-street designer cred of, well, of a factory. Because while it’s true that skill and craftsmanship are the bones of a successful art practice, the most essential element remains elusive and relatively rare – genuine artistic spark. Talent or gift, call it what you will, it’s a difficult quality to define. Perhaps it’s visionary in essence, or borne of an innate fearlessness – whatever it is, it’s not something that can be fabricated or acquired. It’s empyreal, like the soul.
When Harvey Littleton started the studio workshops at the Toledo Museum of Art in 1962, and liberated glass from the functional principles and the in-house aesthetic strictures of the factory floor, there was a great sense of derring-do and creative promise. Glass as a material offered a brilliantly expressive visual vocabulary; a rich vein of the metaphorical and metaphysical, with the provenance of a long and illustrious heritage to boot. It had everything, from scholarly rigour to decorative chic. But more than that, it was a medium almost uncannily custom-made for the era. In the psychedelic decade of Fluxus and Process Art, when primal expression and experimental discovery of the material became paramount, glass couldn’t fail to appeal to a generation of international artists switched on to the progressive culture and mercurial social climes of the times. It was sexy and immediate, and primed for a makeover. Indeed, the symbolic tearing down of those hierarchical factory walls was undoubtedly a significant part of the initial attraction.
In later years, when the primacy (and discipline) of craftsmanship was reinstated, the ‘gloopiness’ of the earlier, trailblazing generation was often disparaged amid furious debate ignited by an early observation, made by Littleton himself, that ‘technique is cheap.’ (He’d actually only meant that technique was accessible to all – that it was instead the artist’s idiosyncratic sensitivity to the material that was critical. The craft buffs chose to misinterpret the statement as a goad[i].) A retrospective tendency to dismiss the early ‘organic’ work of the studio glass pioneers as merely undisciplined and unskilled cavalierly overlooks, of course, the philosophic and stylistic milieu of the period (and the unmistakable playfulness and exuberance that went with the territory.). It was an era of significant political upheaval and socio/cultural revolution, aptly reflected in the typical plasticity of the art of the time. (And if you can’t remember it you probably weren’t there!)
The pendulum has now perhaps swung too far back the other way. From the 1980’s onwards, the concerted push towards technique and professional practice has been a little too successful. Marketability has become the overriding focus of the contemporary scene, and the relentless commodification of the arts has driven the glass sector practically straight back to its manufacturing roots – to a narrow, production-line mentality. High end virtuosity, without doubt, but calculated commercial product nonetheless. This, of course, is not problematic in itself provided that there is a very clear, and realistic, understanding of the art and craft differential. Because, while there is arguably no intrinsic superiority in either, both – though symbiotic – are fundamentally very distinct propositions.
To the wider public, all ‘art glass’ is (almost indiscriminately) fascinating. The seductive power of the material is consummate. But one expects that the practicing artist will have more technical savvy, and therefore ought to be more critically perceptive. Familiarity breeds…discernment. No matter how proficient the imitators of Dante Marioni or Lino Tagliapietro ultimately become, such patently derivative work will always lack the lustre of the genuine article. Not because any less skill is required, or the degree of difficulty is in question, but because the work doesn’t have any real creative integrity of its own. It becomes a technical exercise with barely a hint of personal signature. To make a proper mark these days, studio glass needs an indelible stamp of unmistakable individuality – and the reinvention of this well-worn wheel is becoming an increasingly rare achievement. Part of the problem is the lack of risk. When artists opt for the safety of the shallow, commercial end of the pool there’s not likely to be much splash.
It’s time to redress the balance and re-introduce the development of strong conceptual practices that engage on a broader, humanist level – in a way that pushes the boundaries and intelligently interrogates the art-craft dichotomy. In other words, it’s time to encourage the upcoming generation of glass artists to spread their wings and start considering their work in terms of a serious contemporary art practice. They need to get out and get funky with it. Perhaps this is where things have gone awry. A culture of accelerated maturity has been allowed to develop – resulting in a whole generation of glass artists starting out as ponderous sophisticates. It’s all too artificial. Too stilted. You are what you make – and artists have an obligation to be faithful to their own true nature.
Which brings us back to the premise of the show; it’s time to break free of the generic mold. Studio glass in Australia has hit a critical watershed, particularly in view of the Global Financial Crisis. The sky has fallen in on the reliable bourse environment that supported the (seemingly invincible) buoyant art market, and the sector now faces the potential of straightened circumstances. This is not to say that the purse is empty, but the good old days of plenty, when literally anything could sell, are over. The market from here on in is likely to be a little less liberally indulgent. Artists will need to reassess their modus operandi – apart from anything else, there’s the duty of care to the planet to consider. Studio glass has a carbon footprint that, frankly, wouldn’t bear close scrutiny and in view of the looming environmental-global warming crisis, it behoves practitioners to reconsider very carefully what they make, and why. And, at the very least, make it count. Instead of banging out a succession of predictably vacuous objects, artists should start to think about engaging both empathetically and intelligently with material to produce something a little more enlightening. Something that inspires us to lofty sentiment, that alerts us to divers ethical imperatives, that expresses the very essence of our being. Because this is the role of the arts, is it not? A visual expression of the cultural currency of the day.
Despite being restricted to eight artists, leading to obvious regrettable exclusions, the line up for Tour de Force presented less of a curatorial dilemma than one might have anticipated. Because while many people certainly make ‘contemporary objects’ in glass, it’s quite a stretch to parlay that into a bone fide contemporary art practice. There are surprisingly very few Australian glass artists who even attempt, let alone successfully transcend, the contemporary art-craft divide. The attendant difficulty and confusion surrounding this issue arises partly from the continuing dearth of robust critical objectivity in the sector, and partly from the perennial mud wrestling over definition. But semantics aside, it would be fair to say that the participants in this show are considered by many to be ‘artist’s artists’. All eight have the sort of unique approach to practice that stirs the interest and genuine admiration of their peers – a certain sensibility that unerringly manages to connect all the relevant dots. It’s an indefinable quality that catches our breath and creates a shift, however modest, in the collective consciousness.
The curatorial brief to the artists was…singularly brief. Do what you do. This would be constrained, of course, by considerations of the space and group dynamic – but essentially there was no curatorial interference apropos the work itself. To have exerted any would have been counterproductive, and quite inappropriate given the nature of the project. Tour de Force is not a show predicated on commercial considerations. Nor was it the usual curatorial ‘cruise by’ and choice of existing work from the various participants’ studios – because no matter how recent the piece, once it’s been resolved to the satisfaction of the artist, he or she has already mentally moved on. It was somehow important for the tenor of this show, in the interests of authentic contemporary relevance, that the work should be freshly minted, specifically for the exhibition. This presented quite a leap of faith for all concerned, not least the organising and funding bodies. The status of the artists brought competing commitments that would, in most cases, mean an eleventh hour start on entirely new work, sans safety net. The challenge created an edginess of its own (indeed most of the work was still being finished right up to the arrival of the courier truck!) This show is so au courant it has a pulse. The body’s still warm. And it’s thrillingly familiar. Tour de Force is an exhibition that pushes our cognitive buttons. It addresses our daily communion with the world around us.
Timothy Horn was an established sculptor for well over a decade before studying at the ANU School of Art Glass Workshop, so to all intents and purposes he was ensconced in the contemporary art camp long before venturing into glass. His well-honed aesthetic interlaces art historic references with current social mores, and he habitually plays with scale and decorative ornamentation, selecting material appropriate to the nuanced requirements of the piece. Though a departure from his trademark opulence, Horn’s White Death, like much of his work, is a multi-layered construct of scholarship and personal experience (he’s lived in America for the past several years.)
Based loosely on the ‘claveras de azúcar’ (sugar skulls) for the Mexican Day of the Dead, and inspired by the visual lexicon of the Grim Reaper – from ossuaries to the Black Death to the Jolly Roger, even (this last referencing the unprecedented rise in modern piracy) – White Death is an allegory for the cyclical self-perpetuating death knell of civilization. Horn’s doom comes courtesy of global greed and cultural ‘refinement’. Drugs, obesity, the GFC, the warmongering of the Bush/Cheney Administration and the attendant atrocities, all culminate in the declining hegemony of the American Empire. Mankind metaphorically gorges on itself once more, and the skull and cross-bones remain an ever powerful and perennially apposite symbol of alarum.
Deb Jones treads a path much closer to home; gleaning her inspiration from the often overlooked and humble moments of the everyday. Her monuments to ‘the little things in life’ celebrate the minutiae of day to day existence. In Jones’s view, the things that are important are incredibly hard to put a finger on – they are the countless ordinary moments that build into the complexity of our common experience. Making is a means of solidifying a thought, of actualising an idea, and Jones’s overriding interest lies in finding ways to convey emotional intelligence – the value of which society, in the main, still struggles to appreciate. My mother’s arm and To everyone who ever smiled at me that I didn’t know commemorate dependability and concord.
There’s a benevolence in the work that’s palpable, and comforting. Reminiscent of Victorian alabaster statuary, the casts are unashamedly sentimental – a loving rendition of familiar qualities held dear. The same sensibility extends to the series of paintings on glass – here, by romancing the commonplace she extracts the beauty from the banal. But only through her eyes can we fully appreciate the unlikely charm of the light switch or the wheelie bin – it’s as if we needed to have her draw it for us. Jones avoids being restricted to, or defined by, the ‘glass object’ by maintaining a practice of broad scope. But whether through drawing (her first love) or glasswork or public art projects, her primary concern remains an abiding truth to more than mere material; her guiding light is probity of principle.
Nicholas Folland is the wild card in this pack. He’s the one inclusion who hasn’t had formal affiliation with glass in terms of having trained specifically in the discipline. But like a growing number of contemporary artists he regularly uses glass as a focal narrative prop in his installation work. And he uses it in a way that glass artists don’t (probably because he’s not distracted by the need to show-off his technical prowess.) Glass is the support character in Folland’s habitually dramatic tableaux, never the diva. Invariably embracing potential disaster, his work is often invested with a sense of vertiginous hyperrealism (particularly evident in his bathroom piece Raft, and the nihilistic slant of Anchor (1-5) recently acquired by the MCA.) There’s always a tension between ‘civilization’ and the natural order, and an enduring fascination with the re-encroachment of nature over the constructed landscape. For the purposes of Tour de Force, Folland (like Horn) has had to scale back dramatically. His piece, Casual Acquaintance: the Sceptic, packs a quasi-tasteful punch; the veneer of domestic social pretension barely hides the rudimentary mechanisms required to maintain it.
There’s often an emotional fragility to Folland’s work, a sense that the carefully contrived façade of this ad hoc social experiment may yet come apart at the seams. Those superficial accoutrements of middle-class affectation – the pressed crystal bowl from David Jones, the naff reproduction hall table – reveal inner workings of a less than stylish nature, in an overwrought, obsolete and jerry-built system struggling with keeping up appearances.
Neil Roberts (sadly missed since his untimely death in 2002) was the first Australian studio glass artist to break away from the confines of the contemporary guild. Having originally trained as a glass-blower at the Jam Factory in Adelaide he was soon increasingly drawn to mixed media and, more particularly, to found objects and general detritus. Roberts’ abiding interest was the social history of objects; the vestiges of use, of stoic dignity and gritty diligence. In many ways his practice is a continuing series of masculine still life; constructs of the universal man’s working life, glued together by the smell of leather and the sweat of blokie emotion. He had genuine veneration for the very exertion that material and objects represented, and the narratives ran deep. He also worked with neon; sometimes as a lyrical accent to a piece, other times as poetic notations writ large across the urban-scape. In the BA na na BA na na MAN go series, made during a residency at the Noosa Regional Gallery in 1998, he used fluorescent light for the first (and only) time. These works are a direct response to the sum of the parts of the object itself – the vintage banana lounge – and regardless of the obvious iconic and pop interpretations they will inevitably attract, the artist’s primary interest was the woven patterning and formal minimalism of this classic ready-made.
BA na na BA na na MAN go is a composition of rhythm and light; from the cool fluoro to the title of the piece, which references folk drum rhythms picked up by Roberts during a residency at ART-LAB, Manila, in the Philippines some seven years before.
When Trish Roan, the youngest member of the group, graduated from the ANU School of Art Glass workshop in 2006, she received the school’s highly regarded Neil Roberts Award, and it’s not difficult to understand why. Like Roberts, Roan is attuned to the resonance of ‘material complexity’, though she often chooses more of an alchemist’s path; a metaphysical study of perception through elemental experimentation. Indeed for Tour de Force Roan had intended to include work that wouldn’t be out of place in a chemistry lab but, in keeping with all such empirical trials, the risk inherent ran true to form and that particular piece is still ‘in development’. The work that did survive her exacting R&D is an exploration of the macrocosmic interconnection of humanity. She’s long been intrigued by the precognitive nature of arcane sciences such as astrology and the fact that, regardless of their physical isolation, all societies throughout the ages have devised almost identical ways of interpreting the heavens, of navigating by the stars.
In Wayfinding, which alludes to a voyage of personal discovery, the points of reference drop from a configuration of constellations visible in the October night sky. The seemingly indecipherable is unlocked by a predetermined alignment of celestial bodies. All three pieces in Tour de Force ponder the infinite threads that both guide and liberate us, and like all good art the apparent simplicity of the work belies the intricacy of the making. Roan’s delicate and meticulous practice is, above all, an extraordinarily disciplined study of patience and observation.
Ian Mowbray, on the other hand, is anything but celestially esoteric, though his work is no less painstakingly executed. Not one to shy away from the most basic of instincts, Mowbray has long positioned himself squarely in the garden of earthly delights. His long established practice has been an erotic exploration of the lustier thematic of death, sex and the universe, and in a medium that generally caters obsequiously to the genteel and conservative classes, the sheer carnality of Mowbray’s work has always been refreshingly provocative. He’s the Nick Cave of glass; the satyric bad boy of the pack, drawing the viewer into a strangely closeted moment of faintly perverse, voyeuristic intimacy. Souvenirs of My Family represent a convergence of Mowbray’s two distinct bodies of work to date – the signature, ‘gender ambiguous’ blocks and his more recent snow-dome series – and herald a new phase in his classically Decameron-esque[ii] oeuvre. Mowbray serves it up, warts and all, in an ‘adults only’ slice of private contemporary life that inverts the conventional spectacle of glass into something almost indecently personal, and undeniably familiar. And this is key – the vulgarity and entendre is our common bond and, whether we’re prepared to admit it or not, we instinctively know the circumstances of these preserved narratives.
It’s the chronicle of Everyman: the vulnerabilities, the imperfections, the broken dreams. For those who may not be aware, Mowbray spends unimaginable hours hand-carving all of his work (with tiny diamond files) – so in the parlance of his idiosyncratic practice, these works are one serious hand job.
Jacqueline Gropp is, essentially, a lyricist in glass. More specifically, she works in a style that invokes the melancholic assemblages of sixteenth century Vanitas (a collection of objects chosen and arranged as a reminder of the transience and uncertainties of life.) If she had a trademark ‘look’ it would be a certain languid elegance (with just a hint of Victorian mourning.) Her work often speaks of yearning and regret, of resignation and loss. Her medium of choice is borosilicate, or scientific, glass; the material qualities of which convey all manner of appropriate metaphoric similes. Above all it also provides the alchemic edge, and the corresponding allusions that go with that particularly intellectually loaded territory. Involution is classic Gropp, in mere definition alone:’ involvement, intricacy, entanglement[iii].’
But of course there’s so much more. The beads (again, shades of Victorian jet) visibly mark/string together moments of lost time, of missed opportunity. The archaic symbolism of the knot signifies both connection and continuum, regardless of personal (physiological and psychological) failing. The ampoules represent containment (of both body and emotion) and carry a swag of related medical inferences; not the least being material inertia. This delicately realized flame-worked piece is like an exquisitely composed sigh, barely more corporeal than the graphite shading that underscores it. It’s a beautifully understated piece, a dignified surrender to the vicissitudes of life.
But wait, there’s more; Tom Moore, who has long broken with convention to evolve a wonderfully eccentric practice that runs more along the lines of ‘the theatre of the absurd’. It’s a practice that is nothing short of a phenomenon – a mixed media construct amply laced with wit and ‘alternative’ wisdom. His imaginative narratives and his growing cast of unlikely protagonists (enviro-hybrids, all) pose moral conundrums of surprisingly epic proportion. The latest episode in the Cirque d’ aMoore is dedicated to birds of every conceivable feather. There is, of course, an established historic precedent for glass birds but Moore, in his inimitable fashion, has side-stepped the obvious and given the birds his signature humanoid make-over. I Notice Birds runs the gamut of glass and art references – from the shamanistic motifs of Eskimo art to Lalique to the kitsch lamp-blown ‘shopping-mall’ swan barometers, even – and like all the forerunners it’s eminently collectible. But although Moore can turn a fine goblet or crank out yards of reticello with the best of them (he’s been the production manager at the JamFactory Craft and Design Centre in Adelaide for the last decade) his personal interest doesn’t lie in conventional ideals of beauty or perfection.
He’s drawn to characterization. Birds, he observes, may be cute but they’re never quite friendly or warm. On the contrary they’re beady eyed and prone to pecking (and, ergo, potentially fairly dangerous.) Traditional representations of birds in art are imbued with a certain stylistic grace – Moore’s cast of players tends instead to be unruly and bogan, god love ‘em. His installations invariably constitute a crowd, a deftly comedic party piece that celebrates the joy of craft and demonstrates that playfulness is serious business too.
All eight artists maintain practices that are excitingly innovative conceptually and uncompromisingly singular. What they do have in common is the artistic integrity and the courage and commitment to forge their own creative paths, and while paying all due deference to the master craftsmanship that necessarily underpins their practices, none allow themselves to be defined by it. Perhaps even more importantly, all have maintained the generosity of spirit that echoes the early vocational (almost evangelistic) nature of the original studio glass movement; the dedication, the nurturing, the genuine love for the craft (without being obsessively enslaved by it). Somehow they have the ability to fine tune all of the salient elements and move beyond static representation to an extension of life itself. They plug us all into the common mystery. The work may be variously gestural, lyrical, or emotive, it may embrace social issues and rattle the cage, it may merely provide the whisper of a nudge – but whatever the manifestation, it resonates. It makes us stop and think, it coaxes us to re-examine our value systems, it asks us “will you be, can you be, receptive?”
It fulfils, in other words, the proper function of contemporary art.
(Copyright, Megan Bottari, curator.)
Please note: the images in this post are just happy snaps taken at the gallery (artisan).
(i) Joan Falconer Byrd’s interview with Harvey K Littleton http://www.aaa.si.edu/collections/oralhistories/transcripts/little01.htm
(ii)Giovanni Boccacio, The Decameron, published c 1353
(ii) Concise Oxford Dictionary