Essays


Masters of Blown Glass

What response, in thought or emotion, are you trying to engender in the viewer?

Surprise, tenderness, flow, a kind of cleansing feeling, ancient excavations, newness, childlike curiosity, beauty and play.

What drives you to create?

I am hard wired to make things in three dimensions. I always loved building and being in another world. . In my father's toy store, everything was talking, whether to me or its neighbor ; It was a magical world. I am searching each day for that deeper connection with objects.

What were your biggest breakthroughs?

I listen to my inner being then observe and experiment in the studio until it feels right, until a connection is made with what I am feeling or imagining and the thing in front of me. Breakthroughs seem to come slowly by day to day interaction with the work. I can't be in a hurry and in fact the work tells me to slow down. It took me years to recognize that link between the reverie of the toy in my childhood to the resonance in the objects I was making as an adult. That is magic.

That was an "aha!" moment.

What influences you?

Nature, art history, contemporary art, experience, light and shadows, water, people, the breath, rivers, life, death, survival, vulnerability, tenuousness, fragility, heartbreak, fear, the lack of connection, understanding, sympathy, tenderness.

What inspires you?

Sometimes it is just a scent in the air, the way the earth sounds under foot, the feel of cool water against my hand as it pushes through the river surface, or something deep in the woods that I can only catch a glimpse of that sets off thinking about work, shapes, relationships and the tenuous connections we make with the landscape and with each other.

How do you map out your work beforehand?

Starting with an impulse, an idea, a verb, I'll draw it out if I need to and plan it as best I can before I get to the studio, then work and try to translate without losing the gesture as I layer the work with added complexity. I will consider a mark as I am etching the glass. I'll create a gesture with the acid cream on the brush and "paint" the surface of the glass two, three, four or five times until the surface has the depth and movement I am looking for, not just sealing the surface but considering each mark and its relationship to the ones before it. The metal is approached with the same energy, so mild steel will have brush stokes of patination and then sealed. I have a cache of glass drops in many sizes and thicknesses. They are my palette that I can reach to as I am composing the drops on the etched glass panel. Each drop has a relationship to the last one building left to right like a scroll, telling a story. I will sit with the drops and contemplate their position, movement, gesture as the composition builds. I am listening to the surface, the light and the depth behind as I build these compositions. The work take months. I start with the idea and the scale, order the glass, then order the metal from my fabricator Gene Stahl, and prepare drops. As the glass comes in I'll build the pin placements for the slump. I use either my studio ovens or if the work is larger I'll bend it at the Pittsburgh Glass Center or at Gerry Wagner's studio for the 4' x 4' sheets. Gerry has a large ceramic kiln that he converts for my slumps and it works perfectly. Ron my partner helps in all of this. I have great support to help make my works.

Excerpt from Lark Books Publication Masters of Blown Glass

^ top


A Perestroika of Form

So much of western art practice has been devoted to restructuring nature’s forms. But nature has always eluded capture, eluded the artist’s mastery. It is no secret that in the old battle between representation and abstraction in modern art, abstraction won. Really, abstraction had always, already won as all art is artifice—artificial—and, hence, not nature. The work presented here by Ron Desmett and Kathleen Mulcahy, with a related installation by Martin Prekop, addresses this quixotic relationship between man-made and natural forms and the artist’s defining role in controlling that connection. Though conceptually distinct, the three artists address this reFORMation—this “perestroika,” to borrow Mikhail Gorbachev’s term1 —through the unexpected medium of glass.

Kathleen Mulcahy’s glass sculptures have the most sensual relationship to organic forms. In both her wall-mounted work, like the panel-piece Strand, and pedestal pieces, such as the bottle forms in the Persuasion series, components are rounded, swollen, and curved. They often imitate the look of liquid elements in nature drawn out by gravity. But there is nothing of nature’s seemingly random complexity in these compositions. Instead, Mulcahy simplifies the irregularity of organic shapes to create beautifully controlled blown and flame-worked arrangements. It’s as if the artist has adapted Paul Cézanne’s famous instruction to, “treat nature by means of the cylinder, the sphere, the cone.”2 Her glass elements may be prompted by something observed in the world, but they have been refined to a purified geometric form carefully set in a controlled composition.

As one of several, wall pieces presented here, Strand (2009) is a good example of this formal simplification. Works in this series involve flame-worked or blown shapes attached to slumped plate glass backed by a fabricated steel sheet. The plate glass is acid etched with a paintbrush giving the surface an unevenly clouded look that is still semi-transparent, revealing the metal surface behind. The artist weathers these metal panels—embracing chance effects that give the surface a lived experience—sealing in the rust and wear that develops.

The panel in Strand is substantial, 4’ x 4’, and a curve of large, clear glass beads strung on wire is suspended over it. Though physically similar to a necklace, the strand here more strongly calls to mind something found in nature. The two-layered panel behind makes the connected glass drops look like air bubbles or a string of plant matter washing ashore in shallow water. The particular line of the strung forms, what the artist calls the “gesture,” feels like it could change with the next watery surge.

The same feeling of a composition arranged by chance is conveyed in the similar Breakpoint (also 2009). The format now is tall and narrow, 65” x 32”, and the clear glass beads are solid and fused together. The shorter suspension of the weightier beads and the critical crimp in the line near midpoint reveals the artist’s careful control. Again the forms seem prompted by nature—frog eggs at the edge of a pond?—but they are also meticulously abstracted and orchestrated. Like the best modern sculpture that relied on similarly simplified organic forms, such as that by Constantin Brancusi, Breakpoint is austerely beautiful.

This is also true of the dozens of long, pendulous rivulets in The Clearing (2009) or Tidal (2010) that are luscious to behold. One not only sees, but feels the slow drip of the glass in its once molten state. The resulting elements now call to mind water droplets or a viscous fluid pulled down by gravity. In Tidal, a wavy-edged aluminum panel, cut in the shape of a giant raindrop, has been drilled with holes from which the delicate glass rivulets are suspended. The objects and the support now directly reinforce the connection to nature. In all cases, the artist has used abstraction to re-present the visual and sensual experience of natural phenomena, allowing the viewer to draw upon their own associations.

A more ambiguous form that seems somewhere between the organic and man-made was created for the Vapors series (the ones shown here are from 2006). Large blown glass vessels are attached vertically to the wall with transparent pipes at the bottom that seem to curve toward the viewer’s mouth. The swollen receptacle above is etched a cloudy umber color, implying the presence of a gas or trapped breath. The evocative form lacks specificity, but calls to mind some strange alchemical device that promises transformation, perhaps an allusion to the material transformation that occurs in the glass-making process itself.

Mulcahy’s free-standing pedestal piece, Know:No (2009), slides further from the organic side of the abstraction scale to the man-made. Defying the artist’s usual preference for transparency, this sculpture’s size, at 24" high, and solid black color have an affinity for Ron Desmett’s dark vessels. This curious and amusing figure is again made of circular forms: a couple of identical balls of shiny black glass sit one on top of the other, like two-thirds of a top heavy snowman. Two more much smaller balls are attached asymmetrically off the “shoulder” of each larger ball. The sculpture is recognized at once as a complete abstraction at the same time that it has pronounced figural associations. Its rounded forms and perky, upright stacking call to mind a children’s toy or kitchy ceramic figurine.

The association with toys is intentional. The artist is known for her blown glass Spinners (1989-present), not included in this exhibit. These large, singular forms have kaleidoscopic colored patterns that swirl around pointed volumes. They look like super-sized spinning tops and undoubtedly relate to Mulcahy’s memories of growing up in her parents’ toy store. But where the spinners are pretty and entertaining, Know: No is the bad toy, as the admonishment in the title tells us. There is a conceptual game afoot here. Know:No looks like a functional container, but it’s not. It looks like a toy, but it’s not. It looks like it’s made of ceramic or plastic, but it’s not. You think you know what it is but, no, you don’t.

Contrasting this manufactured reference, Desmett’s formal play makes the most obvious use of an organic form, a tree trunk, in his on-going series of Lidded Trunk Vessels (all 2009) presented here. These are surely some of the strangest containers ever fashioned of glass. Irregular, lumpy vessels—such as #30: Pinnacle—are etched to a dense, matte black finish and topped with an equally odd-looking lid resembling the stem of a giant squash. These intentionally crude profiles are at complete odds with Mulcahy’s refined and sensual abstractions.

The artist’s production technique is experimental and risky, pushing the limits of the glass medium. A hollowed-out and soaked tree trunk is employed as the mold for the blown glass while a smaller trunk section is used for the lid. The dangerous process, often resulting in incineration, is only partially under the artist’s control. The risks are worth it as out of this unpredictable encounter, Desmett produces vessels that are at once terribly homely and utterly captivating.

The relationship of the resulting form to the original tree part is a riddle that promotes this captivation. Is the glass sculpture a record of the tree’s natural material imprinted on its surface and giving the form its shape, or is it a representation of that no-longer existing material? Is it abstract or representational? The uncomfortable answer is that it is both.

There is also an empirical conundrum here. Rather than revealing the underlying geometry of natural forms, Desmett’s Trunk Vessels force us to confront the inescapable physical presence of his sculptures and of the fallen trees harvested as their molds. Much of this is due to the opaque nature of the object’s surface. The black glass has a lot of metal in it giving it a special density. The matte finish is at once porous and impenetrable—a quality totally at odds with the definition of glass as a transparent medium.

Examining these qualities in a piece like Black Valley, one is reminded of philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre’s memorable encounter with a chestnut tree in his existential diary, Nausea.3 He relates his contemplation of this dark tree one day, writing:

I was sitting, stooping forward, head bowed, alone in front of this black, knotty mass, entirely beastly, which frightened me. . . . The chestnut tree pressed itself against my eyes. . . . This root . . . existed in such a way that I could not explain it. Knotty, inert, nameless, it fascinated me, filled my eyes, brought me back unceasingly to its own existence. 4

The mystery of Desmett’s form is frightening because the mind can’t quickly categorize its identity (an issue also addressed in Prekop’s installation in this exhibit). It is a weird experience to see the normally hidden, concave interior of a tree’s trunk expressed as a solid, convex form.

The nature of this piece and its function are unresolvable. Like Sartre, we are forced to take the object on its own terms as an object. The Lidded Trunk Vessels are neither symbolic, nor transcendental. They do not transport the viewer elsewhere, tell a story, nor represent something else. It is expressly because the mind can’t square its preconceptions of what constitutes a work of art with what the eyes are seeing that one is brought back “unceasingly” to these sculptures.

Desmett tempers the intensity of these conceptual considerations by coaxing out an individual identity for some vessels. He plays up the association of the lid of the container with a head and the bulk of the form with a body. These anthropomorphic suggestions are emphasized in some of the larger vessels by adding a small sphere of black glass to the top. In examples like Pinnacle and Black Valley, this man-made touch turns the lid into a tall “hat” giving the work a “personality.”

Sometimes Desmett’s titles directly suggest a figure. This happens in the group of smaller, narrower vessels included here, like Sentinel. The slender body now becomes a long face overwhelmed by the tall lid that accounts for more than a third of the piece’s vertical height. The lower trunk has the stub of a projecting root, like a nose, that contributes to a quality of gravitas. One halfway expects the hollows and protrusions to resolve as features of a human face, like those of the attacking apple trees in The Wizard of Oz.

Desmett and Mulcahy contributed small spheres and irregular black forms to Martin Prekop’s adjoining installation. These objects sit evenly spaced on narrow low shelves across the walls. Prekop’s House, an on-going mixed-media project begun in 1993, is installed here as a grid of black and white photographs and mirror squares behind the sculptures. The photographs document the artist’s home and garden near Pittsburgh including views of furniture, decorative objects, paintings, sculptures, and installations.5

Though Prekop’s subjects are very specific, he too has abstracted his references like Mulcahy and Desmett. This is accomplished in the photos through the use of black and white, extreme close-ups, negative images, and repetition. It’s as if the artist has subverted the ability of the camera to capture a clear image, by divorcing his objects—a chair? stairs? a canvas’s stretcher?— from an identifiable context through cropping. The once recognizable form is now more of an abstraction.

A clue to Prekop’s conceptual agenda comes in the form of the large vertical paintings (acrylic on canvas) that break up the rows of shelves. Brightly-colored concentric rectangles in these paintings contrast with the black and white grid of the photos and mirrors and reinforce House’s dialogue with abstraction. The colors in one are bright primaries, while those in another are softer tertiaries. These color studies reference comparable formal investigations common to Minimalist paintings in the 1960s, like Frank Stella’s similar color pinstripes (Gran Cairo of 1962 is an example).

Prekop’s paintings are brought back to the domestic context of the rest of the piece though the use of gold framing around the edges of each rectangle. Such decorative frames are more commonly used in the home than in the contemporary art gallery. This elaborate framing brings an ironic humor to the installation: no formalist painter would dream of putting a frame of any kind around their canvas, let alone one that is so ornate, intrusive, and gilded in gold leaf!

Ultimately, the neat format of House emulates a clinical presentation of factual information: a sort of taxonomy of the domestic. But, though the details here are highly personal to the artist, there is no revelation of the self. Again, Prekop shares the attitude of Minimalist and Conceptual artists of the late twentieth century. House is more a formal study, investigating issues of composition and representation, than an expressionistic communication.

The rows of mirrors in Prekop’s installation allow a summary of the themes addressed in this exhibition as a whole. The mirror’s material is glass, though manufactured and not handmade as with Mulcahy’s and Desmett’s work. With its reflective property, a mirror’s surface naturally turns three-dimensional forms into two-dimensional abstractions. This happens as the black sculptures—already at least one step removed from any real form—are abstracted even further when reflected on the flat surface of the mirrors.

Perestroika has allowed for a fascinating exploration of three artists’ manipulation of form. Each one takes a very different position in their exploration of the relationship of reality to abstraction in their artistic practice. With her sensual glass sculptures offering much visual pleasure, Kathleen Mulcahy is the “id” of the group—to borrow Sigmund Freud’s model of the psyche. Ron Desmett is the “ego” with the most direct use of organic matter in his Lidded Trunk Vessels. That leaves Martin Prekop as the “super-ego.” His House provides a conceptual framework through which the nature of representation is examined. Taken together, this group of artists makes an integrated whole providing work that is both visually and intellectually satisfying.

Kristina Olson
Exhibition reviewer for Art in America and Associate Professor of Art History, West Virginia University

Notes

  1. “Perestroika” was the name of the policy of economic and governmental reform instituted by Gorbachev in the Soviet Union during the mid-1980s and the title of his 1987 book.
  2. This was written in a letter from Cézanne to fellow painter Emile Bernard dated 15 April 1904.
  3. Jean-Paul Sartre, Nausea (New York: New Directions Publishing, 1964), 127-131. Originally published as La Nausée in 1938.
  4. Ibid.
  5. See the exhibition catalogue for Glassnost at the Regina Gouger Miller Gallery (Pittsburgh, PA: Carnegie Mellon University, 2007), n.p.

^ top


Kathleen Mulcahy:
Natural Forces

Kathleen Mulcahy’s glass sculptures celebrate the sensuous nature of vision. The recent work presented in this exhibition takes full advantage of the tactile appeal of her medium. Though made of glass, these sculptures have no shard-like forms, no hard-edged crystals, no crisp-bordered shapes. Instead, everything is rounded, swollen, and curved, imitating the look of liquid forms in nature that are drawn out by gravity. Like many artists of her generation who have rejected the neo-conceptual games of much of the art of the last twenty-five years, Mulcahy unabashedly embraces the visual pleasure elicited through her sensual manipulation of the glass medium.

When critic Dave Hickey, re-introduced the concept of beauty into the discussion of contemporary art in the early 1990s it set off a fire-storm of controversy. Since at least the mid-1960s, with the rise of the austere style of Minimalism, progressive artists had been on a mission to prove the serious intent of their work by eschewing any formal element that might be pleasurable. This Cartesian, puritanical approach equated beauty with being merely decorative and, in protest, spawned work that was visually humble, abject, and even openly ugly. Mulcahy has turned this logic on its head by using a medium traditionally considered entirely decorative and outside of the field of fine art—glass—and encouraging its pleasing qualities. This approach resonates with what Hickey concludes about the best contemporary art, that its appeal to beauty is a more effective conceptual tool expressly because it is so seductive (you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar, after all).

These seductive qualities can be traced in the varied formats of Mulcahy’s work in this exhibition (all dating from 2006). The artist has become known for her blown glass Spinners. These large, singular forms have varied colored patterns that swirl around the pointed volumes. They look like super-sized children’s spinning tops and are drawn from Mulcahy’s childhood memories of growing up in her parents’ toy store in Orange, New Jersey. Though no longer functional and now virtuoso in execution, the Spinners demonstrate the artist’s “devotion to small things.” She has called up a common and appealing form (a child’s toy), divorced it from its original scale, material, and function, and produced a beautiful, and now conceptual, sculpture.

A similar transformation occurs in the Persuasion Series. Here, another small and familiar form, an ornate perfume bottle, has been scaled up and abstracted. The blown glass bottle shape in Languorous, for example, is now thirty-five inches tall. It is all about visual seduction and, hence, the allusion to a woman’s use of perfume in the mating dance is appropriate. The intense cobalt blue of the vessel’s body is deep and mesmerizing. The ornamental flourish on the stopper begs to be caressed and lifted. Even the work’s title is etched in fanciful script across the base making plain the promise of dreamy sensuality under the spell of the bottle’s contents, an apt metaphor for the sculpture’s effect on the viewer.

A more ambiguous form that also implies bodily interaction was created for the Vapors series. Large blown glass vessels are attached vertically to the wall with transparent pipes at the bottom that seem to curve toward the viewer’s mouth. The swollen receptacle above is etched a cloudy white, implying the presence of a gas or trapped breath. The evocative form lacks specificity, but calls to mind some strange alchemical device that promises transformation, perhaps an allusion to the material transformation that occurs in the glass-making process itself.

A form that has both man-made and natural associations is the inspiration for the piece, Building Bridges on the Molecular Level. It is part of the most-recent series that involves wall-mounted two-dimensional works, instead of vessels, made of flame-worked glass shapes over slumped and etched plate glass on a fabricated steel sheet. The glass is acid etched with a paintbrush allowing the surface to have a brushed look that is still semi-transparent, revealing the surface below. In a quest for perfect proportions, the artist settled on dimensions of 48 inches high by 30 inches wide for each one, giving them a substantial presence.

In Building Bridges, Mulcahy has literally fashioned a string of triangular glass elements that cross over the glass sheet below. Especially because the glass construction is ultimately affixed to a base of slightly rusted steel, the piece calls to mind the city of Pittsburgh, the artist’s home, with its many bridges crossing three rivers and the history of steel production there. Of course, the bridge also calls to mind a schematic of a molecular structure—as if the artist is picturing the underlying natural bridges that, delicate and tenuous as they may be, connect us all.

This idea of expressing connectivity through a sensuous glass bridge is restated in a similar piece from this series called Trace. Here, two strings of glass beads cut an irregular path across the surface of the etched glass plate. Beautiful reflections are cast as light passes through the beads and is mirrored in the watery surface of glass and down to the rusted metal sheet below. The result is an appealing, abstract form that has many organic associations. For the artist, the impetus for the piece was the observation several years ago of freshly-laid frog eggs strung across a pond. All of Mulcahy’s work is drawn from such similarly closely-observed small forms that fascinate, get stored in memory, and one day are called forth in the production of a work that invites the viewer to enter into a similar visual reverie.

A final piece from this series, West Branch of the Susquehanna, is also drawn from an experience of paying close attention to a natural phenomenon. The work is a tour-de-force of the artist’s technical skills. Irregular clear glass drops are hung over the vertical glass and steel surface in imitation of the experience the artist had of a summer rain on the Susquehanna River during a canoe trip. The pendulous drops are luscious to behold. The sensual experience the artist had that day on the river has been carefully abstracted and represented, allowing the viewer to bring their own associations to the piece.

Like the best art, Kathleen Mulcahy’s glass sculptures entice the viewer with shapes that captivate and allow for reflection. For the careful observer, the experience is transformative and sends one back into the world with new eyes carefully attuned to the connective forms glimpsed in small things. As the artist concludes, “the forms stand as a unique statement about nature, time, distance, memory and connections. All lead to a pondering about the world, what it is made of —people, animals, nature, things—and how we all fall into place, in a romance of living.”

Kristina Olson
West Virginia University

^ top


Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
“Truth/Beauty: Kathleen Mulcahy and Ron Desmett”
Pittsburgh Glass Center

Once unassailable, the terms “Truth” and “Beauty,” have now long been suspect. Whose truth? Whose beauty? The artists Ron Desmett and Kathleen Mulcahy make no attempt to fulfill dated expectations in this two-person exhibition. Rather, they take on the challenge of using glass sculpture to subvert traditional assumptions about the medium and its appeal to the beautiful and truthful.

Long-time figures in the Pittsburgh art scene, the artists are co-founders of the Glass Center, an innovative facility devoted to the production and exhibition of glass art. Each has a very different approach to the material. Mulcahy’s work is sensual. Forms are rounded, swollen, and curved. Desmett is more conceptual, borrowing from existing sources—both natural and man-made. A comparison of some of their vessels and two-dimensional pieces, all produced in 2006, foregrounds these distinctions.

In her Persuasion Series, Mulcahy starts with a recognizable container—an ornate perfume decanter—and dramatically increases its scale. The seductive blown glass bottle in Languorous, for example, is now thirty-five inches tall. The intense cobalt blue of the vessel’s body is deep and mesmerizing. The ornamental flourish on the stopper begs to be caressed and lifted. The work’s title is etched in fanciful script across the base making plain the promise of dreamy sensuality under the spell of the bottle’s contents.

By contrast, Desmett’s containers, entitled Lidded Trunk Vessels, are surely some of the strangest ever fashioned of glass. Large, lumpen forms are etched to a dense, matt chocolate-black finish and topped with an equally odd-looking lid that resembles the think stem of a giant squash. Their nature-derived and decidedly crude profiles are at complete odds with Mulcahy’s refined sensuality. A hollowed-out tree trunk is employed as the mold for the blown glass while a smaller trunk is used for the lid. The process is improbable and risky but, when successful, results in a vessel that is at once terribly homely and utterly captivating.

Each artist also presents a second group of work that is more two-dimensional. For Mulcahy, these take the form of layered, wall-mounted pieces made of flame-worked glass shapes over slumped and etched plate glass attached to a fabricated steel sheet. West Branch of the Susquehanna is a tour-de-force of the artist’s technical skills. Clear glass drops of irregular lengths are hung over the vertical glass and steel surfaces. The pendulous drops are luscious to behold, recalling the sensual experience of a summer rain.

Desmett brings his sensibility as a painter to his wall pieces. Shallow, square-framed boxes have appropriated images that are etched on the glass surface or the support below. In Cat’s Cradle, for example, a dated image of a man wearing a suit is glimpsed through an all-over honeycomb pattern along with a diagram of hands playing the children’s string game. A bright-red heart floats in the upper left pointing to the work’s content of the stereotype of controlled masculinity at odds with feelings of emotional manipulation.

Masculine stereotypes continue to be explored in Desmett’s major work, A Book: Portrait of the Artist as a Middle Aged Man. Spread open on a steel stand, the large-format “book” with glass pages is etched with appropriated images and text. Again the imagery is drawn from the artist’s childhood and common vocabulary—tools, men in suits, a tractor, organs—coupled with text that on the left reads in reverse “see through glass darkly.” We’re given a skeptical assessment of the images of manhood presented in children’s schoolbooks and the artist’s desire to question that authority.

That attitude of questioning assumptions about received meaning, or expectations for glass sculpture, is what links the seemingly contradictory work presented here. It’s refreshing to see Mulcahy and Desmett taking us beyond the clichÈ of a decorative approach to glass to new forms that are technically brilliant, conceptually dense, and visually seductive.

Kristina Olson

^ top