Tangerine Gold

Posted 18.03.11 at 3:00am

WALKING on the occasional patches of glass paving that one encountered on city streets is an enduring childhood memory. Though not aware of their purpose at the time (to allow light into dim basements), the magic of walking on this material made an impression. I recalled this enjoyment when Elizabeth Kelly told me about a commission by the Sydney Harbour Foreshore Authority in 2005 to create prismatic vault lights (glass paving refracting tiles) for the restoration of the Rocks Precinct.1

The industry that once produced these common objects no longer exists in Australia. Kelly, with her interest in cast glass technology, was uniquely equipped to do the job.

SINCE 1993 Kelly has investigated and experimented with techniques to press and cast glass. One early project was the development of a shot glass for Robert Foster’s F!NK Design range (see image over).2 Kelly credits Foster with encouraging her interest in the largely forgotten method of hand-pressed glass. ‘Working with Rob initially brought tool making into my thinking, and it has entered my practice,’ she explains.3

The production of the perfectly formed shot glasses in commercial quantities was undertaken in Adelaide, where Kelly was head of the glass studio at the JamFactory Craft and Design Centre from 1997 to 2000. This production work spurred further research and development into industrial processes of pressed, centrifuged and direct cast objects—research she continues at Studio Tangerine, which she established in 2003 at the artist-run ANCA complex in Mitchell, Australian Capital Territory. In recognition of the value of her work, and the opportunity for professional growth, Kelly was awarded a Winston Churchill Memorial Trust Fellowship to undertake international research in 2011 into the history of architectural cast glass, the potential for manufacturing and further investigation into colour chemistry and tooling.

For all the years that Kelly has worked with glass, and her undeniable mastery of the material, she does not define herself a ‘glass’ artist, and sits outside the Australian studio glass movement to some extent. Hers is in essence a sculptural practice, which can be seen clearly in this exhibition, and was also evident when she exhibited wooden
maquettes on the tower theme in 2009.4 Her primary interests in these works were form and structure, system and pattern. They were part of her preparation for further glass towers, but they were superbly executed in wood, and their proportions were as finely judged as Babelet (2008) and Spiralet (2010). Standing under a metre tall, they retained a monumental presence. The relative size of each brick (be it wood or glass) to the whole is also crucial to the success of the form.

GLASS, however, remains Kelly’s preferred medium. With glass she can bring into the sculptural equation colour that she creates especially for each work.5 The colours have a subtle effect on our reading of the spare columns: compare the emotional register of the enigmatic The Black Tower (2008) to the playful Terrific (2009). The quality of transparency adds a further dimension, in what one commentator has called the ‘optical power of intense, saturated colour.’6 Kelly’s polychroic colours respond to density and light, animating the viewer’s experience in a way that other materials could not. One is never left in any doubt that her exceptional technical expertise is always employed to realise an aesthetic goal.

The tower (a structure whose height is disproportionate to its base—typically a ratio of 1:4) is a recurring figure in Kelly’s work. She says simply that the proportions appeal, and it has been evident in early glass vessels through to the miniature buildings in City of Glass (2006). Running parallel has been Kelly’s interest in internal spaces, as seen in works of the 1990s that featured internal colour and apertures to view the inside.

ANOTHER characteristic sculptural device is her fascination with scaling-up, an Alice’s ‘Drink me’ bottle strategy. To achieve large scale using glass, though, is a challenge. It is a material with good compressive strength. But while it is perfectly capable of bearing the force of vertical construction, it has its limitations, especially in the non-industrial context of an artist’s studio, where the size of the kiln and basic handling impose restrictions. Kelly’s resolution to this problem is to scale-up by using multiples. ‘Playing with scale is exciting. It is a way of honing in on how you look at the world’, she says.7

ONE can clearly see the precedent that has inspired her: the humble brick. I recall her marvelling at the bricklayer’s art as seen in a documentary about the restoration of the chimneys at Hampton Court Palace, UK (1514).8 It was the interdependence between pattern, manual skill and structural strength that impressed her.

The smaller-scale works, such as the Sequentia series, show Kelly exploring the variations of modular construction, and experimenting with the technique of casting multiple glass components to make larger forms.

Over the years Kelly has worked in collaboration with New Zealand-based toolmaker, design engineer and glass artist Michael Wilson, who brings an engineer’s expertise to the task and is responsible for much of the meticulous mould making. He made several trips to work alongside Kelly at Studio Tangerine in the production of the current, experimental works that tested the capacities of the artist, the engineer and the material, culminating in the beautifully resolved, complex, 200+ unit (Colour of the) universe (2010). The name refers to the recent revelation that the universe is, after all, beige (possibly the most compelling argument yet that God is not a woman/does not exist).9

The Black Tower (2008), Terrific (2009), Colour by Numbers (2009) and (Colour of the) universe (2010) stand nearly three metres tall. They are imposing towers of great beauty, rich in metaphor, history and iconography—aspirational, powerful and singular. As hybrid forms (part building, part monument) they also reflect Kelly’s growing interest in architectural structure and proportion. They have allowed her, for the first time, to create an architecturally scaled object.

‘Towers have been built since ancient times. They have been symbols of religious piety, political dominance 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… A glass tower has all the incongruity and poetry of a glass slipper. It is at once familiar and fabulous.’10

FROM Cleopatra’s Needle (now in New York’s Central Park), to Pisa’s Leaning Tower, the Eiffel Tower in Paris and London’s BT Tower, towers have gripped our imagination. Kelly’s peerless columns of glass are as much an expression of the artist’s own aspirations as they are a very contemporary and uncompromising unity. The many small components, which hold together (and become stronger) through compressive force, are a succinct metaphor for the value of community. The lasting properties of the material itself are a testament to endurance.

For twenty years Kelly has put her energy into developing a multi-disciplinary practice, one that crosses over from studio glass to sculpture and the built environment. Her sculptural works, while standing alone as works of great beauty, point to the potential of bringing glass once again into wider use as an energy efficient building material. The structural strength of glass, so manifest in these towers, offers a way of reintroducing glass into architecture at a time when that industry is increasingly aware of environmental issues regarding lighting and heat management, and the use of materials that can be recycled.

ENVIRONMENTAL concerns are an important aspect of Kelly’s continued use of glass. In Studio Tangerine, Kelly has introduced innovations into glass production, designing and building her own energy-efficient furnace (with combustion engineers Wilson and Nathan Bray) that reduces the amount of energy (by an estimated third) required for melting the glass: a major achievement in this energy-hungry art form. She also has a commitment to recycling glass.

Kelly is well on the way to bringing these divergent strands together. To support her art with an economically viable business based on principles of environmental sustainability would be, for Studio Tangerine, pure gold.

Merryn Gates
October 2010

1 Elizabeth Kelly, in conversation with the author, July 2010
2 www.finkdesign.com
3 Elizabeth Kelly, in conversation with the author, 18 January 2006
4 Construct, ANCA Gallery, Canberra, 2009
5 Kelly’s distinctive palette is due to her knowledge of the colour chemistry. She ‘hand makes’ most of her own glass, adding trace elements to clear batch.
6 Margot Osborne, Australian Glass Today, Wakefield Press, 2005, p94
7 Elizabeth Kelly, in conversation with the author, 30 March 2009
8 www.hrp.org.uk
9 Johns Hopkins University astronomers Karl Glazebrook and Ivan Baldry describe the colour as RGB 255, 248, 231. www.wired.com/science/discoveries/news/2002/03/50930
10 The author, ‘Ignoring the proverb: Don’t throw bricks when you live in a glass house’, 716 #39, Craft Australia, April 2009. www.craftaustralia.org.au

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