Merryn Gates speaks with Canberra-based glass artist Liz Kelly about her current work and research preoccupations which ignore the proverb: don't throw bricks when you live in a glass house.
"Playing with scale is exciting," says Elizabeth Kelly. "It is a way of honing in on how you look at the world."1
The use of glass has featured in Kelly's work for over a decade. Its material qualities are important but, as we will see, the sculptural idea is paramount. To give expression to her ideas has also meant she has over the years worked with wood, steel and paper.
The form of the tower first appeared in 19962. Her interests were colour (her speciality of colour in glass technology dates from this time) and sculptural form. Some of the grotesquely enlarged children's toys from that series could not be made in glass: the spinning tops, for example, were fabricated in steel. In order to scale up to classic tower proportions (1:4) Kelly experimented with using glass modules. Still, the Neon Towers 1995 are supported by an internal core of Perspex.
Definition: tower - a structure whose height is disproportionate with reference to its base.
When asked why the tower is so prominent in her practice, Kelly talks of an unconscious 'form repetition' in each artist's work. The proportions appeal. Towers, of course have their own history and iconography. They have been built since ancient times, as symbols of religious piety, political power and social control, safety and surveillance, and recently communication. Their height has been dependent on the technology of the times, so as building materials progressed from stone to brick to steel, the tower has evolved.
Still 'playing with scale', and influenced by a brief time in Japan in 2001, Kelly produced small paper boxes, using brochures, wrappings and Japanese papers. While travelling, and wanting to keep making work, small scale, miniature was the logical way to go.
Eventually the box shape was made in blown glass. In Red boxes 2001, the central aperture remains, vessel-like, at the top. The planes of the boxes were treated, she recalls, in a "painterly way." Irregular, askew, dense. Once the aperture shifted from the top to one of the vertical faces of the box form, it all changed. The box became more representational, more sculpture than object. More like a building.
Pattern recognition is one of the most basic skills we have. It is how a baby recognises its mother's face, how we make meaning by identifying like things in the world: dogs, cats, trees. Perhaps 'building' is one of these, and it is its proportion we recognise at whatever scale. Pattern recognition is now a discipline used in military intelligence, high security and gaming. But artists have long been adept at detecting patterns in patterns, engineers at finding systems in patterns.
Kelly's began to see her multiple small 'buildings' - in blown, cast and hot-formed glass, cold worked, painted and etched, and the wooden casting blanks - as a city. Here was another way of scaling up, she realised, where the "sum of the objects could mean a greater thing, and be of more consequence than a single object." Colour was also a big part of City of glass (2006).3 The subtle nuances of colour can't be factory made, she maintains, "…you can only do it in your own studio." This show marked a definitive move away from production craft to sculptural multiples.
In the City of glass there are many proportions, including squat small buildings, skyscrapers and the towers that for some years Kelly had been researching. Taking her cue from brickwork, and the 'sum of the parts' revelation of the exhibition, she now explored up-scaling using small, repeated modules. The 400kg of glass in her studio was cast into hundreds of beautifully formed, richly coloured glass bricks. Black tower 2008 rose 2.8m gloriously high4. She had found the "rhythmic law for architectural effectiveness" of which Walter Burley Griffin, describing the principles of his knitlock bricks, wrote.5 Glass is perfectly able to bear the force of vertical construction, being a material good at compressive strength.
Only days after the Black tower was exhibited Kelly took up an artist-in-residency in Japan at the Seto Ceramic and Glass Centre, where, shifting gears once again, she addressed the small-scale object. In Japan there is an aesthetic called kawaii (cute) applied to a range of things from Hello Kitty and Pokomon, to pop star Seiko Matsuda. Small city (2008), a more tightly conceived progression from City of Glass, was in some ways a response to this phenomenon and she found her Japanese colleagues referred to the pieces as kawaii. As she moved through the city, she was also noticing the walls made of brick, tile, stone and recycled materials from their famous kilns. Alert now to the potential of brick-making, their oblique patterns made a strong impression on her. A glass maquette, Barbelet, 2008, violet glass, features a spiral effect.
In late 2008 Kelly was awarded the prestigious CAPO Fellowship. The Fellowship is supporting further research into tower structures using cast glass modules. Already Kelly has exhibited maquettes for future towers in Construct.6 These use wood to explore pattern as a construction device. Untitled black and white, 2009, shows a play between colour, surface texture, pattern and engineering principles. The scaling up of this maquette will alter the balance between dark and pale elements as the grain of the wood also adds to the way we read this piece at 1m. How can this be translated to another medium? Retaining the right sense of proportion will not simply be a matter of making each module larger, and scale can be frustratingly ambiguous. Consider the images that accompany this article: without reference to the given measurements or outside context, scale would be very hard to establish.
In a strange way, glass is everything and nothing to Kelly. It is a material she is expert in using, but she often pushes it to its limits, seemingly fighting against it.7 At the same time, she takes full advantage of its qualities to imbue her works with meaning: its power to seduce, challenge and provoke. A glass tower has all the incongruity and poetry of a glass slipper. It is at once familiar and fabulous.
The outcome of the CAPO Fellowship will be seen in forthcoming exhibitions:
Sites specific, Canberra Museum and Gallery, ACT and the National Glass Centre, Wagga Wagga, NSW.
When I had the pleasure of opening City of Glass, I read this excerpt from The hollow men by T. S. Eliot, 1925. It still seems to express the complexity of Kelly's towering, fragile and internalized world.
We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Headpiece filled with straw.
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
Or rats' feet over broken glass
In our dry cellar
Shape without form, shade without colour,
Paralysed force, gesture without motion;
Those who have crossed
With direct eyes, to death's other Kingdom.
Remember us - if at all - not as lost
Violent souls, but only
As the hollow men
The stuffed men.
Merryn Gates is a Canberra-based freelance arts consultant, curator and writer, and founder of SFA Press. She is currently Art Consultant to the Parliament House Art Collection, Canberra.