Visual Art: Independent Collector - John Windsor's guide to buying affordable contemporary art

PURE WHITE and delicately modelled, this porcelain cast of an infant's dress by Tiziana Bendall-Brunello seems to contain the breath of life. It speaks of the fragility of childhood and the fleetness of time.

The Italian-born artist has already earned a reputation for her glass bowls in which gold, silver and copper is embedded, and for her glass architectural panels. But it is her casts of socks, shoes - and now little dresses - that she feels impelled to make between commissions, that have caught the eye of exhibition curators.

Janice Blackburn, the independent curator, has put her porcelain dress in her current "Spirit of the Age" exhibition at the Bowes Museum, Barnard Castle, County Durham, and her pair of lead-crystal stiletto-heeled shoes were in this summer's "Absolut Cobblers" exhibition at the Barbican. Next month, the Hayward Gallery will show her ceramic and glass triptych, "Fragments", in its show, "Addressing the Century: 100 Years of Art and Fashion", which explores the radical visual innovations of key figures in art and fashion.

Bendall-Brunello, 39, dipped the 20in high cotton dress repeatedly in porcelain slip until it literally acquired body. After each dip, she accentuated the detail of the frills using a wooden modelling tool. "These dresses are so close to being human; they really talk to you," she says.

So it is a pity that about four out of five crumble or distort into macabre shapes during firing at 1280C. She discards them. The survivors - only four so far - emerge with the fabric incinerated without trace and having acquired a subtle movement of their own. "It's not like carving the drapery of a stone statue," she says. "You have to stand back and let the firing process take its own course". The latest, to which she has become most attached, has braced its tiny shoulders and puffed out its chest.

One of her inspirations is the Sixties Italian arte povera artist Giuseppe Penone, especially his ceramic life-size human figure, "Breath", cast in negative so that the empty cavity seems to materialise.

Reaction to the little porcelain dress is mixed. One viewer, overheard by Bendall-Brunello, called it "The epitome of poetry". Another said: "Oh, god, it's difficult to look at, it's so ghostly". To me, it looks like one of those irresistibly nostalgic 18th century children's garments that turn up in trunks in the attics of the gentry - the last remnant of a life, perhaps snuffed out before its time, now resurrected.

Her pair of slip-cast socks are more homely. They look as if they have just been cast off - crumpled, but still containing the shape of feet.

Bendall-Brunello's degree course at Camberwell College of Arts was in fine art and ceramics. Hence her daring use of kiln technology. One of her works is a little dress sandwiched between two sheets of glass and fired. The dress has disappeared, but its impression in the glass remains, down to the last fibre. She has applied a screenprint of the dress, as it was, to one side of the glass. "I like using glass," she says. "It's like freezing, preserving something. The glass allows you in, but at the same time keeps you at a distance."

Each of the three tile-like shapes of her "Fragments" contains a porcelain cast of a section of a dress embedded in greenish glass. "I wanted to deconstruct something familiar,", she says, "and then put it back together in a different way. It was certainly more involving than previous pieces.

"My work appears to be self-generating. I feel as if I'm following leads, picking up threads."

Prices: pounds 450 - pounds 2,200. Examples of her work will be in Sotheby's annual selling exhibition of contemporary decorative art in February.

Tiziana Bendall-Brunello (01223-411374)

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