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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 languorous properties 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.1 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,2 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.”3 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 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.”4

Kristina Olson
West Virginia University

  1. See Dave Hickey, The Invisible Dragon: Four Essays on Beauty, Los Angeles: Art Issues Press, 1993.
  2. Referring to René Descartes (1596-1650), the mathematician and thinker considered the founder of modern philosophy. His radical proposition that it is the ability for abstract thought that is the essential characteristic of man is summed up in his statement Cogito ergo sum, “I think, therefore, I am.”
  3. Kathleen Mulcahy, electronic interview with the author, 17 October 2006.
  4. Ibid.