A Thread of Light I Colin Reid with 3 generations of British kiln-cast glass artists.

Curator Andrew Brewerton


Only a few decades ago, just being able to cast glass was enough to excite interest, and questions that involved deeper creative motives were somewhat overshadowed in the headlong search for novel ways of merely shaping the material. We are now a couple of generations down the line from those heady, exciting and naïve days, though most of the pioneers of the studio movement are, happily, still with us…

Now that the studio-glass movement is in its third generation, it is increasingly common for established artists to accept aspiring ones as studio assistants. This has a profound effect on those lucky enough to benefit from such an experience. It is a far cry from the early days, when very little information was available and the little that did exist had to be gained by constant experiment.[1]

[Keith Cummings]

~

I think perhaps ideas are permanent. You know, the way they get handed down.[2]

[Richard Long]

 

Keith Cummings’ reflections on the now global phenomenon of the studio-glass movement in contemporary art, provide a useful introduction to A Thread of Light: Colin Reid and three generations of British kiln-cast glass. They assemble at first-hand and in active, living memory a generational perspective on the emergence of kiln-cast studio glass since the 1960s in a very British context.

Our second epigraph, from the British ‘land artist’ Richard Long, was his response to a question from the audience, “what, if anything, would you say is permanent in art?”, at a public conversation with fellow artist Chris Drury at Dartington (UK) in October 2005. Richard Long is here I think affirming the intangible power of cultural transmission, extension and renewal in philosophy and at the level of individual or collective art practise.

The artists gathered in this exhibition are in these terms closely linked across three generations of thinking and making in the medium of cast glass, in a particular place (the UK) at a certain point in time (over the last sixty years). With a series of three publications[3], Keith Cummings (b.1940) has established the technical, historical and contemporary dimensions of this movement, and of his own pioneering practise – exemplified in this Liuli China Museum show by Reflect (2017). Cummings’ work is both the original fuse or element and also a continuing source of illumination in this bright thread of vitreous light across three generations of British artists in kiln-cast glass. His quietly self-effacing influence since the 1960s and, significantly for studio glass artists in China since the 1990s, both through his studio practise and through his teaching, is of far-reaching historical significance.

The artists represented in the current exhibition do not however comprise an aesthetic ‘movement’ in the formal sense of that term. They have no manifesto. There is no ‘house style’. The extraordinary diversity of their work traces the individual pathways they have followed. Even so they are working in an identifiable tradition, exemplified by their choice of materials and techniques, philosophy and lifestyle, in which the work is not easily distinguishable from the life, This observation is clearly evident in the sense that Keith Cummings traces it to the example of François Décorchemont:

The route taken by today’s studio-glass artists, although foreshadowed by earlier practitioners like François Décorchemont [1880-1971], with their choice of art over craft, is not a straightforward one. The decision to devote oneself to the lifetime practice of a craft discipline in the 21st century is not the same as making that choice in a pre-industrial, or even an early post-industrial age… The choice of a life spent in the practice of a craft material discipline is a self-conscious one based on the desire for self-expression. You could say that such a choice determines the lifestyle; two centuries ago the reverse was true. The context in which such activities are studied are now the art school and the university rather than the atelier, workshop or factory.[4]

Within the global studio glass movement this British tradition distinguishes itself from American hot glass (with the development of small studio furnace technology), or the work Czech and French artists in glass factory contexts, as a growing community of practise in kiln-forming, stemming from Keith Cummings’ earliest experiments as a student at Durham University in the late 1950s and later at the Whitefriars Glass Company and at Stourbridge College of Art (later transferred to the University of Wolverhampton) and at the Royal College of Art in London. In the UK, the formative role of art schools and university departments has been decisive.

Reflect (2017) exemplifies Cummings’ practise of combining glass with metal and other materials in multiple processes – here glass, copper, brass and pewter – giving rise to painterly development of surface and interior qualities of transparency and opacity, colour and texture. Light dwells on revealed and revealing detail, each moment occluding its origins in the slow alchemical exposition of ideas, materials and processes. Slump-casting, casting, cutting and polishing techniques draw and tease to the surface an ambiguous array of geological, celestial and imaginal depths. Its one-word title, ‘Reflect’, might be an English verb or noun, but has the weight of a gentle imperative. Its etymology invokes light as an optical or mental phenomenon, meaning literally ‘to bring back’ turning outwards or inwards through optics or meditation.

The complexity of this artefact reflects upon glass as a kiln-formed fine art medium as laboured, painstaking, intractable and unpredictable. And capable of happy accidents and extraordinary transformations:

Kiln-forming is slow, inefficient, limited and frustrating way of shaping glass…

…it combines the mystique of alchemy with the excitement of a lottery.[5]

A student of Keith Cummings in the 1970s, Colin Reid (b.1953) is perhaps best known in China for Bamboo Scroll (1999), a four-metre-high glass and steel installation on permanent display in the main entrance lobby of the Shanghai Public Library. Reid’s position as a British artist within the international studio glass movement and as a mentor to a succession of studio assistants, including Sally Fawkes, Angela Jarman, Bruno Romanelli, Karen Browning, Fiaz Elson and Joseph Harrington, provides the focal interest or centre of gravity for A Thread of Light. It is a record of extraordinary creativity, openness and generosity. Reid’s work since the 1970s has evolved constantly under the inspiration of formal interests in the texture of the world, the skin of things in nature and in human culture. There is a consistent, though not exclusive preoccupation with the print of reality as it registers from mould to cast to figure in the optical properties of the transparent medium.

The sculptural concept for Bamboo Scroll took as its point of departure ancient Chinese literary artefacts, namely engraved bamboo strips bound together to form a kind of flexible scroll. The design brief may have been unconsciously informed by the physical incident of the bamboo scaffolding which filled the library as a building site in April 1996 when this project commission took seed. Chinese written characters are incorporated in cast optical crystal blocks in raised and polished relief, providing cursive transparent windows into the light medium. The glass is held in a parallel ribbon structure of flame-cut and patinated steel.

The Chinese characters derive from engraved print originals, reversed out in raised relief through the mould making process, and they comprise a loosely ordered series representing elemental natural and human qualities.  This is not a text as such – there is no woven narrative connection between the word sequence – but the layered disposition of Chinese written characters has clearly influenced the overall composition of the piece.  This was in a sense Reid’s first engagement with written symbols as ‘found objects’, and it is the visual energy of these characters, rather than their linguistic meaning, that stands foremost.  Physically and metaphorically speaking, the characters hang luminous and illuminated in the light of day.  Material precedes meaning; making comes before knowing.

Along with Ring of Fire (2019), four new kiln-cast works in the current show are linked by technique, notably here in the artist’s recent use of colour inclusions as internal patterning within abstracted forms, and with titles variously invoking the artist’s maritime interests as a keen amateur yachtsman: Nautilus; Wave; Vela [the Italian word for ‘sail’, or sail boat]; and Battuto Vessel. Battuto [meaning ‘beaten’ in Italian] is a wheel-cutting technique in which the glass surface is treated with multiple abrasions and polished to resemble beaten copper or pewter surface. The English word vessel can mean both a container or household utensil and a boat or ocean-going craft.

Reid’s distinctive counterpoint of moulded surface relief with clear facets exposing internal dimensions in kiln-cast optical crystal is represented in Still Life with Sunflowers (2019), Walk in Taganana (2019) Still Life with Corn (2017) and Shoal of Roach (2016). The interplay of reflective and refractive properties, and the spatial illusions these qualities give rise to as we move around the object, creates a kind of animated presence in the work. In his own words:

If I were to identify a single thread that runs through my work it would be the influence of nature. That is the source to which I return for inspiration and fresh material for my work. I work in kiln-cast glass, using various moulding techniques to make the forms and moulds in which I cast my glass. My current work is mainly in optical glass because I like its purity. Firings are long, three weeks is typical, so I can get thickness and depth. When the piece comes out of the kiln it is only the start of the making process. There is much cold-work to be done, grinding, polishing, and sandblasting. The pieces evolve and change at this stage as I respond to what has come out of the kiln. Chance plays its part. The tension between what is planned and controlled and what is unexpected can be both creative and disastrous. I do not open the kiln if I am having a bad day. The quality I am after is elusive, impossible to describe, but I know it when I see it. [6]

Sally Fawkes (1968) worked as studio assistant to Colin Reid from 1999–2001, a period including the installation of Bamboo Scroll (1999) at the Shanghai Public Library, and is represented here by both her personal work and by collaborative pieces designed and made with her partner, Richard Jackson (b.1959). Her work contrasts the interior substance of the object with surface qualities that in diverse ways reflect, refract or obscure articulation with their surrounding spatial environment. This is certainly the case with three works in Fawkes’ Eternal Exchange series, numbers VI (2018), IX (2019) and XI (2019), to the degree that they are configured in cast, cold-worked, engraved, mirrored and painted glass. It is also true Converging Connections II (2018), in cast glass and jesmonite, which derives from a residency at Musverre in Sars-Poteries (France) that resulted in a major exhibition–installation in 2018.

Fawkes shares with Reid an intense regard for the incidental details and textures of the natural and human worlds, their structures and their histories, and her work both embodies and transforms the significance of such incidents in glass combined with other materials. In Vice-versa (2018), the installation–exhibition arising from her Musverre experience, material co-ordinates for the artist’s imaginative inquiry into the spatial, social and cultural parameters of a particular place are configured and transformed in careful and telling detail. Converging Connections II (2018), showing here in Liuli China Museum, is a strong example of this. Here the decorative end-bosses of iron tie-bars that Fawkes observed bracing the walls of houses together (technically speaking, moulded ornamental iron washers with central nut fastenings) are transformed into a sculptural artefact in glass and jesmonite, variously evoke the town of Sars-Poteries’ industrial past, its former manufacturing prosperity and the enduring significance of decorative detail in people’s lives. Aesthetics holding house and community together.

Richard Jackson’s Returning Cycle (2019) and All Things Being Equal (2018) are remarkable, lucid essays in glass across its full range as a hot liquid and as a cooled resistant material. Their appearance is of carved light, addressing abstract, strongly planar forms (the sheet, the circle, the pillar) with a diverse range of kiln-casting, cold-working, carving and sandblasting techniques. Jackson’s forms emerge and are worked unsparingly from the inside–out and from outside–in, the trace of every contrasting mark held up in clear optical crystal and on a monumental scale. Fawkes and Jackson’s collaborative pieces, Together We Stand (2015) and New Perspective II (2017) each, though in different ways, achieves complete coherence as a discrete and free-standing artefact.

In Keith Cummings’ words, from 1991–3, Bruno Romanelli (b.1968):

… benefited, like a number of others, from working as Colin Reid’s assistant, and it is easy to see the influences in Bruno’s mature pieces. However, although the technical control of large-scale casting is evident, the uses to which Bruno puts this are every inch his own. Bruno works with a limited range of geometric forms, with limited colour, and a precision of surface that means he relies on the complete control of each element to achieve the austere monumentality of his pieces. His control is absolute, allowing no room for accident or random effects.[7]

This extraordinary control is as self-evident in the earlier, figurative phase in Bruno Romanelli’s work, represented here by Squeezed Vessel S3 (2013), as it is in the 2018-19 series whose titles seemingly invoke characters from Norse mythology and astronomical abstraction [Bestla (a frost giantess) and Narvi (Norse god of wrongdoing) are also names given to moons of the planet Saturn. Sycorax is the evil witch mother of Caliban in Shakespeare’s magical late play The Tempest (1610-11) and the name attributed to a moon of the planet Uranus]. Romanelli’s serial engagement with the circle as the very figure of abstraction – as a universal geometrical motif and as a source of seemingly inexhaustible imaginal power – might lend his work to unending interpretation or to none at all, but the compelling presence of this work resides in its formal perfection, in the balance and equilibrium of its abstract and material qualities.

Angela Jarman (b.1971) worked with Colin Reid from 1993–5 while developing her wholly distinctive practise in lost-wax glass casting.

All the ideas for my work originate from a lifelong interest I have in biology and the natural world. I look to all sources for inspiration – animal, vegetable and mineral; but the one common theme that unites all my thinking has at its core ideas to do with growth and reproduction, duplication, decay and transformation.[8]

Jarman’s work since 2015/16 has acquired a rich chromatic interest since her earlier preoccupation with opaque black and translucent ‘white’ glass, and is represented in A Thread of Light by works from her recent Geode series, using kiln-cast body colour with cold-working techniques of grinding and polishing. In this work her overtly organic sculptural language, eliding vegetable and mineral forms, explores a more formal geological interest around the vessel form. The Oxford English Dictionary defines geode as:

A rock body or nodule having an internal cavity lined or filled with mineral crystals growing inwards; esp. a hollow, rounded stone containing large or well-formed crystals and typically cut in half for display. Also: the cavity within such a body; the contents of such a cavity. Also in figurative contexts.

The figurative context or dimension of these pieces places them slightly beyond reach, glowing and unknowable, balancing ambiguously qualities of strange familiarity and ultimate resistance to assimilation. Mirrors that mirror not only what you see in them, and whose embodied obscurity in the glassy medium is perhaps precisely the point.

Prior to her BA (Hons) degree in Glass Design, Fiaz Elson (b.1975) trained in fashion design, fine art and silversmithing. She worked as senior assistant to Colin Reid from 2001–4 before establishing her own studio practice. She describes her creative philosophy as complex, exploring formal tensions, ambiguities and contradictions inherent in the material properties of glass as the space of memory, emotion and experience – moments hidden, occulted and revealed. In structural terms she has explored formal structural themes of duality and singularity, the formal, cultural, emotional, or psychic resonance of two and one. For Fiaz Elson, working in her studio, the angled refractive planes, the play of translucent interior and exterior dimensions, the effect and the affect of colour and light in glass, become transmuted as alchemical elements of glassmaking as the crucible of interior reflection:

My work starts when I enter the studio and the world outside is forgotten. Play, sketching and model making are always within me, therefore always a source at any point of time.[9]

Karen Browning(b.1969) experimentswith black cast glass spheres and their capacity for surface reflection. Double Trouble (2019), is cast in black glass using the lost wax process with subsequent cold-working – polishing and sandblasting – then gilded with 24-carat gold. The artist’s pre-occupation with the mirror motif draws consciously on complex historical reference, while focusing on the immediate presence of the glass artefact and its making. In the play of inside and outside, physical, cultural and mental dimensions, past, present and future, all surface in the visible moment of the glass studio.

As Browning writes, of her interest in mirrors and their various depths:

In these pieces I explore the historical and mystical side of black mirrors, traditionally used for scrying (looking into the future) whilst also combining this with historical use of black mirrors by landscape painters such as [the French baroque painter] Claude Lorrain [c.1600-1682]. Mirrors create another space, altering or confirming a sense of self or place, and through deception, illusion, and reflection provide a luminous space for contemplation.[10]

Joseph Harrington (b.1979), a studio assistant to Colin Reid from 2002–4, works in relation to the natural landscape, using salt to melt ice into sculptural form invoking coastal erosion and the abrasive interaction of sea and rock edges, of liquid and mineral states, as a constantly evolving material equation of time and space, of history and place. This he calls his ‘Lost Ice Process’:

I use salt to sculpt ice as a one-off ephemeral model to take a direct cast from. The textures this provides and the transient nature of the creative process reflects the erosion and sense of time I want to represent in the landscape. There is a roughness from the initial cast that is ground polished and refined to its final finish, revealing the internal structures of the glass and creating facets and flat planes to redefine the essence of the made against the organic surface.[11]

As a form of representation, this work does not therefore describe the landscape. Rather, it works as it were at the cliff-edge of representation, employing physical and chemical processes to re-create the original inspiration for the work in the texture of disintegration through gradual erosion, in time. All that is solid melts into air, as someone once wrote somewhere.[12]

Void (2018) and Gabbro iii (2018) are two such examples, showing at the Liuli China Museum. ‘Cast Glass, Lost ice Process, with salt erosion’ is their technical designation as pieces in which body colour and light itself appear similarly vulnerable to wear or attrition, their motion cast as arrested time.

Afterword

This exhibition at Liuli China Museum in Taipei and Shanghai has thus a very special kind of intimacy as well as historic significance. Nine artists, three generations. A single, luminous, vitreous medium developed successively across a rich diversity of creative practise. Glass history, and the international studio glass movement, in the making. A thread of light, over three generations of British kiln-cast glass.


[1] Keith Cummings, Contemporary Kiln-Formed Glass: A World Survey (London: A&C Black/Philadelphia: University of “Pennsylvania Press, 2009) ISBN 978-1-408-10075-2. pp. 85, 170. [N.B. this book includes exemplary work by artists Colin Reid, Angela Jarman and Bruno Romanelli who are included in the current show, as well as detailed reference to the work of Loretta Yang Hui-shan.]

[2] Richard Long, in conversation at Dartington (UK), October 2005.

[3] Techniques of Kiln-formed Glass (1997); A History of Glassforming (2002); Contemporary Kiln-Formed Glass: A World Survey (2009), all London: A&C Black/Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. A Chinese edition of Techniques of Kiln-formed Glass translated by Xue Lu was published by China Architecture and Building Press [ISBN 978-7-112-09234-5] in 2007.

[4] Ibid. pp. 11, 58-9

[5] Keith Cummings, Techniques of Kiln-formed Glass (1997), p.46…48

[6] Colin Reid, personal statement at: https://www.adriansassoon.com/artists/colin-reid/

[7] Ibid., p.171

[8] Angela Jarman’s website is at: https://www.angelajarman.com/profile-statement

[9] Fiaz Elson, July 2019

[10] Karen Browning, ‘Experimenting with black cast glass sphere and reflections’, quoted in Peter Johnson and Karen Browning, 50 years on: the heterotopian mirror of enchantment, self-reflection and disruption, at

http://www.heterotopiastudies.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/Mirrors-50-years-on.pdf . “Using mirrors to foretell the future – ‘scrying’- was practised by the ancient Egyptians, Sumerians, Hebrews and the ancient Chinese. The Italian physician Girolamo Cardano (1501-1576) devoted 14 chapters of his treatise to the ‘miracles of catoptrics’, the ‘natural magic’ of optical manipulations, describing different types of mirrors that make it possible to invert, multiply, make distant, draw near or fragment an object in space.

[11] Joseph Harrington, at https://www.josephharrington.art/about

[12]All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober sense, his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.” Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Manifesto of the Communist Party (1848), Chapter 1; Paragraph 18; Lines 12-14.

 

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