Earlier this year a glass exhibition, featuring the work of Brenden Scott French, Masahiro Asaka and Tevita Havea, was held at the ANCA Gallery in Canberra. The show, which was timed to coincide with the Ausglass Conference 2008, had been conceived some two years before with precisely that forum in mind; it was, after all, the biannual Summit of the Sector – and therefore the appropriate setting for esoteric extrapolation apropos the state of the craft as we know it.
In the main these conferences are a show-and-tell exercise. A mutual gratification fest interlarded with jostling, sometimes insidious, agendas. (Nothing new there; it’s an industry of struggling ambition like any other.) The conference provides an opportunity to network, to catch up with old friends, to scope the field, and to bear witness to the reaffirmation of the status quo. The glass scene is nothing if not conservative. Which is not to say that there aren’t free-wheeling individuals out there in the rank and file, merely that the company line is controlled by an established order that is doggedly committed to self-preservation. Such is life.
Post the exuberant pioneering flurry of the 1970’s, Australian studio glass has been marshaled and professionalized to such a degree that it’s become a creature of regulated market convention. Perhaps this is simply the inevitable endgame of aspirant progression, of advancement up the ‘creative industry food-chain.’ Not that the commercial success of one’s practice isn’t desirable (because patently it most certainly is.) But that success ought to spring from the inherent, even sublime, quality of the work itself rather than from a strategic cultivation of, and servile connivance with, the machinations of established self-reverential interest groups.
The problem is that monopolizing business alliances (including dealers and galleries) have been allowed to dictate the ‘style’ of antipodean product in a way that interferes with natural artistic progression. Delivering a commercial ‘house style’ is not what studio glass is purported to be about. What on earth happened to freedom of expression, to the (now seemingly almost reckless) desire to make art? Because forget the art vs craft debate – it’s a crock. We’ve not freed ourselves from the strictures of the guild at all – we’ve somehow managed to bind ourselves to it again. Ever and ever more tightly.
Perhaps it’s just a Canberra thing. Perhaps it’s aligned to the unholy creep of the consumerist middle class ‘trendy designer’ propaganda of the last decade (which appears to have driven nearly all forms of art into the safe haven of interior décor.) Whatever it is, it’s mighty disappointing.
We now find ourselves having to endure the epoch of institutionalized conceit and promotional contrivance, where imitation in the guise of sincerest flattery is proactively fostered (entirely heedless of William Penn’s somewhat pertinent warning ‘avoid flatterers, for they are thieves in disguise’…) – a circumstance hitherto unthinkable, certainly in Stephen Procter’s day. And, frankly, it’s beyond vexatious to have to witness this debasement of the medium; which for the last 5 years has been dealt not only the disservice of such duplicitous and vapid superficiality, but seems to have also suffered the loss of its humanity, of its warmth and humour, too.
This then formed the genesis of the Hunks of Glass exhibition. The title, cheekily predicated on the concept of the curator’s pick of the spunkiest men in Australian glass, is in part a satirical commentary on celebrity posturing and in part a double entendre alluding to the sexy, designer marketability of the medium. The real joke is in-house, of course; because the three artists represented in the show are the very antithesis of the strutting rock-jock bravura of the promotional banners draping the gallery foyer. All three, instead, are thoughtful, self-effacing and considerate to a fault – with a modesty that is refreshingly sincere in the current era of bombastic humbuggery. Even more importantly, at a time when studio glass is increasingly, disappointingly derivative, these three young men have strikingly idiosyncratic practices that are attracting meritorious attention, both nationally and abroad – practices that reflect the integrity of genuine artistic compulsion (as opposed to the calculated contrivance of marketable ‘celebrity product’, aka ‘corporate trophy art’.) They represent, in effect, a (re)emergence of artistic integrity.
Brenden Scott French, Engine #2, 25th January 2008, fused glass, wheel carved.
The work of Brenden Scott French is as close as Australian glass gets to abstract expressionism (or, more to the point, post-painterly abstraction.) He’s an artist so riven by ethical angst apropos every aspect of his practice (from the amorality of the medium’s heavily booted carbon footprint, to the sophistry of aesthetics, to self-flagellation over critical philosophical and political positioning…) that he’s practically made an art form of obsessive consideration itself. His signature work to date – a deliberative construct exploring the interface of society and environment – has always had an anarchistic bent; a scumbling of surface, a vandalistic gesture scarifying prototypical conventions of beauty, an elusive sense of insinuated subversion. (See, for example, the image accompanying the FORUM page of this blog, though in this particular instance the subversion is hardly elusive!) More recent work, the Predator series, conscientiously explores fundamental notions of resource management (micro/macro, personal/communal) – from necessity to exploitation. The engine motif has since become the vehicular prime mover in his ongoing artistic investigations, so much so that, following an inherent reductionist path, he’s now abstracted this object entirely to the wall.
To those who know French and his work, the jump to the wall was an inevitable and completely natural progression. Many glass artists venture there these days, with wildly varying degrees of success (just sticking a panel of glass on a wall – regardless of its ‘stylistic’ merit – doesn’t cut it, frankly). The reason why it works for French is that (a) it perfectly suits his already well-established working methodology, and (b) it comfortably fits his personal scale. In other words, it’s appropriate for his practice. Klaus Moje has said that when he himself approached the wall it was with utmost caution (and due respect), understanding full well that to trespass into the realm of the painter brought weighty responsibility – it took highly skilled technical and artistic aplomb to carry it off successfully. During the course of the Hunks exhibition at ANCA it was quite fascinating to watch the local painters being drawn to, and held by, French’s work. One very senior and prominent painter observed, with mocking acerbity, “Ah you glassies, you’ve been trying so hard to do the painterly thing for years…” and then, after a pause, added thoughtfully “ but you know, this bloke’s actually got it.”
For the purposes of the Hunks show, French progresses his philosophical musings apropos use/consumption and regeneration by advancing the concept of a ‘perpetual artwork’. Engine # 2, 25th January 2008, is made up of 28 individual panels – each an episodic experience in the piece’s creative journey – all of which are to be sold independently and, post this exhibition, replaced anew. The work itself will continue to retain the same title (Engine #2) and be distinguished only by the dates of its subsequent re-exhibition. This is a really sweet notion, engaging its audience in an interconnected and quite novel way; the smaller panels are democratically affordable, ownership becomes a shared communal experience, patrons are participatory in the continuing and future evolution of the work, and so forth. It’s socialism at its artful best.
From an exhibiting point of view, Masahiro Asaka is the new kid on the block, insofar as he’s just barely emerging onto the gallery scene. Not that he’s a ‘beginner’ by any stretch of the imagination – between early study in Japan and his recent Masters degree at the ANU School of Art, he spent 4 years in Sydney as a studio assistant to Ben Edols and Kathy Elliot (and these days a number of ‘luminaries’ of the Canberra glass scene would be totally bereft should he choose not to finish their work for them…) His entrance onto the glass stage, consequently, is assured and sophisticated, with all the maturity of an old hand (entirely by his own hand.) All that work for other people has served solely as a lengthy study in materiality for Asaka – he certainly hasn’t let it interfere in the slightest with his own creative aesthetic; through which he explores and celebrates the intrinsic properties of glass itself.
Asaka’s work is excitingly distinctive – he captures the essence of glass in a way that very few others have managed. If one was required to come up with a descriptive label for his work, it would be something like ‘natural phenomena: poised’. He has caught and held the very metamorphosis of the material in a way that’s quite breathtaking. And deceptively au naturel – his mastery of cold working is so deft that it’s practically indiscernible to even a trained eye. Most glass artists use cold working as a deliberate and additional layer, or aspect, of a piece. Asaka, however, never struts the virtuosity; though cardinal to a piece, it’s always unobtrusive. It’s the wonder of the material itself that he’s at pains to demonstrate.
Masahiro Asaka, Surge, cast glass.
(above) Masahiro Asaka’s work, and (right) detail of Surge (click to enlarge.)
(foreground) another Masahiro Asaka piece, and (right) view of gallery.
Surge, for example, is an extraordinary piece of work; a splendid suspension of swelling fluidity (and probably as close as a non-surfer will ever get to the sensation of ‘tube riding’!) The ingenuity behind Asaka’s (literally)amazing practice comes courtesy of diligent R&D, of course. What appears to be the sleight of hand of a master magician is the fruit of his intimate understanding of the medium, gleaned from countless hours of trial and investigation. That it seems so artlessly elemental is testament to Asaka’s considerable expertise.
Tevita Havea’s practice is very different again. Tongan born Havea explores and reconciles the polar demands of his Pacific Islander heritage and current Western/urban existence by weaving his native culture into a coeval context. He once described himself as a ‘contemporary primitive’, caught in-between worlds. “There are always contradictions when there are two opposing forces, but instead of one dominating the other, I aim to make pieces that are neither ancient nor contemporary, but operate to explore the tensions of the space between.” More often than not these pieces are underpinned by Islander mythology and legend; an authentic narrative base that delivers him a trove of metaphoric lyricism. This he handles with such delicacy and respect that the work itself becomes a study of timeless dignity.
Tevita Havea, Vaiola, glass and twine.
The three pieces in the Hunks show tell a story about duty and self-sacrifice, and a journey to the underworld…
It is said that when someone close to you is in great need, and there’s nothing in this world that will help, you must journey to the underworld to seek out the help of the Gatekeeper. On the island of Vava’u stands a ring of trees that marks the way – you pull these up and climb down through the roots until you come to the body of water known as Vaiola. Then you have to swim to the bottom because that is where the Gatekeeper lives. And as you swim through the water it washes your ‘sino’ (body) away, until when you get to the bottom all that is left is your soul. That is the only way you can communicate with the Gatekeeper. He will give you the help that you ask for, but there is a price; you lose your body and he keeps your soul.
Tevita Havea, The Gatekeeper, glass, wood and twine.
It’s not imperative to know the stories, but they bring a sense of archaic provenance that adds to the overall eloquence of the work. The sculptured elements, the woven twine, the carved wood, the material inclusions, the subtle tattoo-ing of surfaces…all of this contrives to produce an object that effuses sociological significance. With a visual fluency that empathetically connects it to us all – a universal spirituality to which we, as viewer, instinctively respond. This, surely, what art is all about.
(foreground) Tevita Havea, Sino, glass and twine.
The Hunks of Glass exhibition, comedic hyperbole aside, was a very considered excercise indeed. It was a celebration of three incredibly talented, emerging artists who have been elevated amongst their peers by virtue of the calibre of their craftsmanship, the originality of their artistic vision, and the depth of sincerity of their engagement with their chosen medium.
Particularly fine role models, all.
The exhibition Hunks of Glass was curated by Megan Bottari.
See also numerous previous posts on this blog…
Studio photography: Stuart Hay.
Gallery snaps: Megsie