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British Glass Biennale 2015

British Glass Biennale 2015

Ruth Shelley - Indian Intarsia

Ruth Shelly: Winner of the Glass sellers Award ‘Indian’ Intarsia, 2014.
Bullseye sheet glass, fused, gravity slumped form, sandblasted
11.5 x 16 x 27cms.  
Photo Credit: Haydn Denman






Ashraf Hanna. Overall Winner. Untitled 1. Bullseye glass . Kiln-Cast.  32 x 49 x 10 cm. Photo.Ester Segarra.

This exhibition is the sixth British Glass Biennale to be held in Stourbridge at the Ruskin Mill Glass centre. During its ten year existence it has established itself as the premier showcase for individual studio glass, produced by artists who are currently resident in the British Isles. The exhibits are jury selected from an open application, and organised into artist and student categories, both of whom compete for a range of different awards and prizes, of which there are eight, all of them in the gift of a variety of donors., including the Worshipful Company of Glass sellers award, the London Glassblowers award for emerging talent, and the National Glass Centre`s emerging artist residency. This is in addition to the Biennale best in show award.

An analysis of the exhibitors reveals some interesting trends: the 74 exhibitors, split forty five female to nineteen male, are divided into sixty one established makers and thirteen students, nineteen of whom list their country of origin from outside the British Isles, from a total of seventeen different countries. This reflects two things; firstly, despite recent cuts, the importance of Britain as a continuing centre of glass making and education, and secondly the global nature of the studio glass movement. In the European Coburg Glaspreis  exhibition in 2014, of the 150 exhibitors 40 were from Britain, by far the largest contingent.

The Biennale exhibition is on show for four weeks, and shares its first week with the International Festival of Glass which comprises a variety of activities centred on the Ruskin Mill and Stourbridge locale. These include Master classes in a variety of glass skills, led by truly international practitioners, which this year included Dante Marioni, Cappy Thompson ,Penny Rakov,and Michael Brennand-Wood. Local venues included Broadfield House Glass Museum, which hosted an exhibition of contemporary Hungarian Glass, and the nearby University of Wolverhampton, which houses one of the UK`s major undergraduate and postgraduate glass departments.

The curator and individual jury members vary with each Biennale, and clearly its make-up has an effect on the criteria used in the selection process, and the final make up of the show; in this case perhaps resulting in the selection of a greater number of sculptural pieces than in past Biennale exhibitions.

As an exhibition devoted exclusively to artefacts made from glass this show shares many characteristics with similar shows worldwide. The material unites a range of object types and individual approaches that do not necessarily have much else in common. Decorative, domestic scale artefacts rub shoulders with large sculptural ones, examples of series production with unique , highly personal statements. This is also true of technique and scale, from tiny pâte-de-verre vessels to large scale assemblages which fill large areas, and involve light, movement and animation. The catalogue makes no attempt to reflect this, or to group like exhibits together, preferring the simplicity of alphabetical order. Care has to be taken, when looking at the catalogue images to keep in mind the huge disparities in scale between exhibits.

In his recent book `Keeping an Eye Open`, Julian Barnes talks of art as `a hub airport with multiple destinations`, this, for me, describes this exhibition, which is typical of others of its kind. This makes it extremely difficult to apply a coherent set of criteria to the judgement of the varied exhibits, and one has to follow each object to its destination to do this. It is always dangerous, in my view, when the material is allowed to come between the object and its true category. The question arises, for example, of whether a glass sculpture could hold its own in a show of mainline sculpture, or whether it exists in a separate category, protected by the novelty of its material. It can, and is often argued that this is just a matter of semantics and is therefore irrelevant to judgement of quality. I would counter that category does matter because it is this that both determines and describes what the maker intended, and crucially, ultimately indicates the criteria by which it should be judged. Artists were asked, when they submitted their works to indicate where their works fitted i.e. Sculpture, decorative art or design. There are, in this show, examples of the maker moving from the material to a category, usually pure sculpture, and others moving in the other direction.

The Biennale exhibition contains the usual full gamut of expressive glass products. Apart from the material itself, and the characteristics of the main forming methods, a more or less universal characteristic is the individual pursuit of creative expression. This includes works of a personal nature something that seems a universal characteristic of expressive glass globally. There is sometimes a clash between novelty and true significance, with the fragility of glass paradoxically  guaranteeing its survival.

This particular approach has long roots, like the famous Syrian enamelled beaker `the Luck of Edenhall`, brought back from the crusades and becoming a family talisman; such objects surviving because, rather than despite  their unique and fragile nature.  The theme of the container featured in many works and I was reminded of the way in which writers in fascist regimes buried their works in glass containers to ensure their survival. In this piece the quality of glass, and the way it is used is entirely appropriate, and the result is a convincing and powerful work.

With each artist striving for an easily identifiable visual identity through an original approach to the material; Ashbee`s famous statement  ` Art that is one person deep is too thin to survive` comes to mind. While an ostentatious break with all tradition appears on the surface to be a requisite for originality it can end in the dead end of Ashbee`s warning, and the best works here do not turn their backs on the past completely.

Technically, the range of forming methods varies as enormously, both in terms of the individual skills on display.  Water-jet cutting and computer generated imagery sit next to the more traditional blowing, cutting, and to kiln-forming.

I began my involvement with glass over fifty years ago, and have therefore seen the whole development of the studio glass movement. From the naive experiments of the early sixties, glass has expanded constantly in scope and ambition. This exhibition contains some ideas and approaches which are both original and well used, particularly in the work of the recent graduates and students.  Indicating  that the movement is far from running out of creative steam.

Article by Keith Cummings


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