Deciphering Material: A Thesis of Glass

Disclaimer: While some of what you just read may come off as subjective and opinionated, it is simply an attempt to define what differentiates glass from other processes and materials. Quite honestly in terms of Art I find myself in awe and with far more appreciation with pieces that contain no glass at all. I am far from the person that believes that anything is better when made of glass, although that opinion has been known to be swayed.

Public Opinion

What I see as the most important factor in glass as a material is the simple fact that it is formed as a construct of our imagination created from what is perceived as an unnatural mixture of physics, chemistry, alchemy, and momentum. Unlike the traditional craft materials of wood, metal, pigment. fiber, or clay; which harvested from the environment retaining a certain apparent visual associations, glass’ fundamental creative process eludes the general public’s grasp, despite the prolific use in urban and industrial life. Because of the historical detachment from the maker due to the effects of the industrializes adaption, and the disappearance and secrecy of traditional glass blowing, the general populace has little knowledge about the formation and history of glass. The common experience is to have seen a documentary on Chihuly, a Coke bottles factory on How it’s Made, or a basic demonstration at a renaissance fair. This disinformation of glass is compounded by the fact that few institutions teach the public about the applications prior to the american studio movement in the 60’s, let alone the fundamental physical and chemical properties. Then there is the sheer physicality of off hand glass blowing that attracts so many, that spectacle of the dance of glass that is half methodology and half performance. The creation of hot glass contains an awe of an immediate transition from fluid to solid, that defining frozen moment where the material shifts from one of anima to a fragile permanence. 

Pure Physics
A peculiar phenomena in regards to the adaptability and variation is the dependency upon applied physic that so directly affects its shaping. While yes, every process used to make an object is essentially a property of physics, the plethora attributed to glass on the end of a pipe can be daunting at times; Boyle’s Laws of Gasses, Newton’s Laws of Gravity, the laws of thermodynamics, the change in viscosity of amorphous non-crystalline structures, the effects of centripetal force, how coefficients of expansion determine compatibility,  transmission, reflection, and refraction of light. The understanding and manipulation of all of these are fundamental to the formation of glass, yet one can be a perfectly adept glass worker and have no idea of what most of these mean. While other materials necessitate these physical forces at any given moment, glass is unique in that they are all applied to even the most basic object. This is also where you can find divides in the glass community; those that wish to advance the material on strictly technological aspects, those with strong ties to the tradition of the craft, the ever persistent weekend warrior, and those that view it from a mixed media perspective and see it as just another medium. It would be difficult to argue a strict hierarchy for these as each tend to have their own strengths, and a combination of any of these is generally applicable. Is it necessary to get a degree in applied physics? Hardly, but when it comes to innovation and deciphering how to make an object it is paramount to have a finite understanding of the physical properties that you are applying to the material. Glass’ closest cousin in terms of formation and structure is plastic, and even more closely related is the shared immediacy of commodification. This can make it difficult to interpret craft, from product, from Art. Are concrete definitions a necessity? Ultimately no, but an attempt to set parameters is the best way to set unified goals. 

Through the Filter
Differing from the majority of other craft materials is that, in almost all manifestations, glass is made in a relatively hands off manner. Our influence on on its fluid like malleability is minimally altered by a tool or mold serving as an intermediary. Our most intimate interactions are mediated through newspaper or a frozen rod of glass. The majority of a shape is derived from glass’ own semi-fluid structure and our “dance” with the pipe. There is an immediacy of movement for this amorphous solid dependent upon heat; then a waiting period of several hours, days, or weeks, before we are able to view the results of our efforts. This latter part is especially true in terms of large kiln formed glass; 10 months in the case of the Hale telescope lens. While I find pleasure in forming clay, I believe that it is this barrier of touch that forces it into a relative mystery in the eyes of the public. That and it hardly seems sane to pluck 2000 degree honey out of a furnace or have a 3500 degree flame inches from your finger and decide to play with it. In the very basic sense, our skills are defined by our muscle memory and the quality of our materials and equipment. But do the tools make the man? Not that I’ve seen, but understanding how to get the same result 12 different ways based upon the physicality, rather than a focus on pure traditions, is what leads to the ingenuity to discover something original. 

The Masks of Glass
Despite all of the challenges that we mitigate, the most distinct disposition of glass is that it has the ability to be a perfect chameleon when used artistically. Every process that can be done with any other material can be applied to glass; mold it, weld it, carve it, weave it, cast it, we are only limited by our ingenuity. Yet, the material is at its artistic best when it is used in sculptural means, losing all of the glassy connotations weighing it down. Thinking specifically of Bertil Valien’s Black series, their power is drawn from the fact that they are so un-glass like, these monoliths of non-glass. I believe that the major problem with the acceleration of glass as art is the proliferation of the idea of the vessel as divine, that archaic attempt at perfection of a method, not the critical application of visual fundamentals towards objects transcend material. When glass stops being the decorative, functional, or shiny object it has a chance to break into realm of high Art. Too often the reflective, refractive, and installation concerns are overlooked, and the proliferation of commodity overrides artistic integrity. I will admit I am as guilty as many as being fixated by process and the obje, yet I feel more of a kinship with this adaptability and possibilities in sculpting. A diverse background in making allows one to approach each project and problem from a slightly outside perspective. Not that I am saying that these principles are the end all methodology of Art, but the all inclusive application of tradition, materiality, engineering, and psychology are fundamental to progress within our community.


This entry was published on December 4, 2012 at 2:20 pm. It’s filed under Uncategorized and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

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