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A State of Matter - exhibition guide

Glass is not a material readily associated with sculpture. Tainted for generations by an association with the decorative, the alluring properties of glass have to some extent been a curse; regarded as too aesthetically pleasing, too frivolous and beautiful to be able to create anything of substance. Alongside its aesthetic qualities, the alchemical and secretive production processes involved in working with glass render it an especially troublesome proposition for sculptors.

Glass is a mysterious and wonderful thing. Less a material than a state of matter, the heat of the furnace transforms grains of silica into molten lava, which can be stretched, flattened, moulded, blown or cast. When cooled from its molten state, glass takes on the qualities most readily associated with it, becoming transparent, reflective, fragile and ephemeral. As a material glass can be both entirely utilitarian – creating window panes, vessels and lenses – and richly expressive, becoming a vehicle for the most visionary experimentation and technical sophistication.

The capacity of glass to take on different surface textures, colours and change its shape and physical state with such abandon means that it is exceptionally difficult to categorise. Unlike stone or wood, there is no essential ‘truth’ to glass as a material. Even things we think we know about glass can turn out to be deceptions: it isn’t always transparent; it isn’t always fragile; it doesn’t always reflect light; it doesn’t remain a liquid forever. Thus, when sculptors turn to glass, they are able to make it perform the most extraordinary feats, sometimes using its common properties, sometimes subverting them, and often while making profound underlying comments on issues of identity and human frailty.

Glass and Sculpture


Although the history of glass as a material dates back thousands of years, the use of glass for making sculpture really took off in the 1950s, when the Venetian artist Giuseppe Santomaso began working with the master glassmaker Archimede Seguso in 1951. In 1953 the master glassmaker and largely unacknowledged hero of modern art Egidio Costantini founded the Centro Studio Pittori Arte del Vetro, which became an important centre for artists who wanted to work with master glassmakers. Costantini welcomed artists including Pablo Picasso, Jean Arp, Lucio Fontana and Alexander Calder, effectively becoming the first ‘fabricator’ in modern art.

The furnaces of Italy were a source of enormous fascination and inspiration for many artists. During the 1950s collaborations began to emerge from the major centres of European glassmaking in Venice and Murano and also Bohemia, home of the renowned Blaschka brothers, where the Czech studio glass movement became hugely influential. Other major studios to work in collaboration with artists include: Berengo Studios on Murano, which continues the work begun by Costantini, along with Ajeto Studio, Czech Republic; Corning Museum of Glass, Urban Glass and Steuben Glass Works in New York; Pilchuck Glass School in Seattle and Centre International du Verre et Arts Plastiques in Marseilles. In the UK, the National Glass Centre, Sunderland continues a tradition of glassmaking that dates back to Roman times.

Working with Glass


Glass is a difficult and sometimes dangerous material to work with and it takes years to master. Although a number of sculptors specialise in working with glass, more often than not artists turn to the skills and expertise of professionals in order to realise sculpture in glass. Many of the sculptures in the exhibition have been produced by skilled glassmakers in a creative and collaborative partnership with the artists who have developed them. Often glassmakers have their own artistic practice, which they continue separately from their work as fabricators. Like all art fabricators, their role is to provide the technical expertise to realise an artwork, to advise and to offer solutions, while the ideas and the creative processes that generate the sculpture belong with the artist. The line between fine art and craft – or the sculptural and the decorative – is often thin and blurred, but it becomes especially difficult to define in relation to glass. Defining what is art and what is a craft can be difficult, and one of the things that is so compelling about glass sculpture is the way in which it combines the two.

Glass exists in many states, from the resolute solidity of cast and moulded glass to the lava-like liquidity of molten glass. The three states of matter – solid, gas and liquid – roughly correspond to particular techniques and processes, which artists have capitalised on to produce these extraordinary sculptures. The exhibition shows that glass is an infinitely variable material, used in imaginative and sometimes subversive ways by a diverse range of artists.
 

 

Solid


Despite persistent myths that glass remains in a liquid state when cooled, glass is in fact classified as an ‘amorphous solid’. One of the great peculiarities of glass is that its atoms do not have time to organise themselves into the ordered structures of a true solid as they cool: it behaves as a solid without having the corresponding atomic structure. The examples in this gallery exploit this to some extent, using techniques such as casting, moulding and lamp-working to produce sculptures that, in many cases, are imposing in their solidity and weightiness. Glass might be thought of as fragile and ephemeral, but Alena Matějka’s Magic Carpets 2004 are weighty and dense and certainly could not take to the air as their title suggests.

Both Matějka’s Magic Carpets and Bruce McLean’s Head 2013 revisit objects from the past through the casting process. Other artists depict objects that should definitely not be made of glass, such as Erwin Eisch’s telephone, Silvia Levenson’s delicate glass dress, or Elliot Walker’s solid pool of wine. Luke Jerram’s magnified glass microbes highlight the fragility of human life rather than the fragility of glass. In contrast, Joseph Kosuth uses that most mundane of glass objects – a window pane – to question our ideas of meaning and value. These sculptures ingeniously undermine our assumptions about the fragility of glass as a material by using solid objects that contradict those assumptions.
 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 

Gas


Gas plays a crucial role in glassmaking, most notably in the technique of glassblowing which requires air to be blown into a molten blob of glass in order to inflate it. The glass is then shaped while molten and hardens as it cools. Blown glass has been produced for centuries and is a highly skilled technique requiring years of practice to master. The glassmakers of Murano and Venice are especially proficient and have developed a distinctive aesthetic, which many sculptors have used or subverted in their work. The sculptures in this gallery made by the De La Torre Brothers and Hew Locke both take a disruptive approach to the decorative properties of blown glass. Similarly, Mona Hatoum’s use of glass creates a conflict between unsettling subject matter and aesthetically appealing material. Blown glass can also produce surprising or disturbing shapes, such as Nicholas Pope’s exuberant, tentacled orb and Emma Woffenden’s Creature 2015-18, whose alien form is surreal and disconcerting. Blown glass exists in a state of constant tension: the more it inflates, the more precarious it becomes, an aspect of glassmaking compellingly captured in Maria Bang Espersen’s film Breathing 2015.
 

 
 
 
 
 
 

 

Liquid


Nothing can be made from glass without the intermediate stage of heating grains of silica to produce liquid glass, the red-hot molten lava from which all glass objects emerge. In this state, glass can be pulled, stretched, dripped and poured, and the capacity of glass to form drops, blobs and bubbles lends itself beautifully to abstraction. Petr Stanicky’s stretched glass sculpture Mirror-Mondeo Bite 2014 is formed using precisely these properties of liquid glass, which is malleable enough to be pulled to a length of nearly two metres. Claire Falkenstein’s sculptures depend on the juxtaposition of solid welded metal with the liquid forms of melted glass, while Alexandra Engelfriet’s film Glassporen (Glass Traces) 2015 uses the heat of the molten glass in its liquid form to create an extraordinary experiment. All of these sculptures exist in an in-between state, having cooled to a state of solid matter while retaining the fluidity of their liquid form.