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.
Exhibition reviewer for Art in America and Associate Professor of Art
History, West Virginia University
- “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.
- This was written in a letter from Cézanne to fellow painter Emile Bernard dated 15 April 1904.
- Jean-Paul Sartre, Nausea (New York: New Directions Publishing, 1964), 127-131. Originally published as La Nausée in 1938.
- See the exhibition catalogue for Glassnost at the Regina Gouger Miller Gallery (Pittsburgh, PA: Carnegie Mellon University, 2007), n.p.