Art: Glass of '98

Thanks to aggressive head-hunting in Eastern Europe and a new small-kiln technique, British glass is hot. John Windsor tips the young glass sculptors destined for fame
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Can you imagine contemporary British glass sculpture becoming as famous as pickled sharks

and concrete houses? Could cutting-edge glass

ever be anything other than a bad pun?

In the past few years, young British glass-makers have been turning out astonishing shapes that owe nothing to either tradition or fashion. They have invented highly individual techniques of melting and blasting, twisting and gouging that are completely new.

Academic glass fanatics at the University of Sunderland, situated in Britain's historic homeland of glass-making, launched a pounds 16 million scheme this month to make young British glass world-famous. No visual art has received such a boost since the Paris Salon.

They have head-hunted the finest makers of monumental glass sculpture from Czechoslovakia, the leading glass-making country (whatever the Americans may say), and given them professorships.

At present, there is no British glass sculptor's name that trips off the tongue. American-born Danny Lane is renowned for the glass furniture he makes in London. Sir Terry Frost has, paradoxically, become the best-known British glass-maker because, at the age of 82, already renowned for his abstract paintings, he has plunged into glass design, sweating it out in the ancient glass kilns of Venice.

Expect shortly to hear more of British glass-makers so far known only to enthusiasts - Colin Reid, Peter Layton, Lucien Simon, Emma Woffenden - and watch their work rise in price.

The British had a love affair with glass once before, in the Sixties. Then, it was hefty, garish, industrially produced Scandinavian domestic bowls and vases - and imitations of them made by the Whitefriars glass company, once the English Tiffany but then ailing and running out of ideas. Britain still makes some of the most awful industrial glass in the world.

The freaky American glass sculpture of the Sixties never caught on here, but it forged the reputations of American glass sculptors such as the charismatic Dale Chihuly, who can command $1 million for a piece. And it is the Americans' invention of the Sixties - the small glass kiln - that has, belatedly, led to a glass-making revival in Britain.

This revival is in cast rather than blown glass - glass that is put in a hod in a kiln and allowed to melt into a mould beneath. Not a single blower is among the eight hopefuls shortlisted for the annual Jerwood Prize for Applied Arts, which this year is for glass. Some traditionalists are horrified.

The cheap and simple small-kiln casting process is even more revolutionary than it appears. Not only is it versatile - you can fill the hod with broken glass, crushed glass, pigment - but it also transcends the vessel shape from the start. In blowing, a blob of molten glass on the end of a tube will always result in a globular vessel - in the same way as a lump of clay on a throwing wheel will always result in a pot.

Most studio potters are forever guiltily harking back to the wheel and the craft tradition. Glass-casters are liberated from the craft-versus- art argument before they begin. Theirs is an art.

Colin Reid, 44, was reminded of the glass- casting process when he clapped eyes on a small, ancient Egyptian, cast- glass bird-man figure in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Casting had been forgotten for more than 2,000 years, ever since the Romans discovered how to blow bottles and vases.

Reid assiduously makes moulds out of plaster to ensure they look good even before they are cast in glamorous glass. Then he fills the hod with bits and pieces of glass - including some with a ground surface. After coalescing into the mould, the ground bits produce the delicious smoky effect that is all his own.

Wearing a glass-maker's protective suit against the heat, he rakes the hod from time to time, sometimes adding granulated glass from an Army ladle.

"What I like about casting is the nice balance between control and chance," he says. "Molten glass has a life of its own. You are never fully in control. The unexpected often happens. But every piece of glass contains its own history and I set up the process so that it can tell its story."

Reid was a painting student in the heyday of conceptualism and became disillusioned, so his glass does not err on the wild side. But there is no doubt that glass can be a medium for conceptual expression in a way that ceramics - even the sculptural shapes of Gordon Baldwin and Ewen Henderson - can never be.

In the current Glass Season in Sunderland, Anna Norberg, 27, is showing her I Do Not Know What It Looks Like When Someone Dies: Electric Chair - a title reminiscent of the title that Damien Hirst gave his shark. The tiny, 10.5in-tall chair consists of glass tubing containing a glowing electric filament. When the hot filament is turned off at the end of each day, the glass shatters and the chair dies. A heap of glass accumulates around the chair's plinth. Norberg is having to make 51 chairs, one for each day of the exhibition.

At the RCA's graduate show in London this month, Jennifer Leitch showed Postcard, a wall mirror with three layers of bolted-together glass, bearing the scribbled message: "As far as I'm concerned, a kiss and a cuddle are OK. But I never let a boy undo my blouse."

Leitch, 24, spent a year making ceramics at the RCA, before taking to glass for the first time. "I wanted the mirroring to make a link between the viewer and the piece," she says.

Kathryn Roberts, 28, an exhibitor in the RCA degree show, trained as a production glass-maker and has nine years' experience of glass-blowing. She could turn out eight giftware jugs an hour. For her, blowing is not dead. She invented a way of stretching hot glass to make her four blown figures in Degrees of Transparency.

Compared with the monumental work the Czechs turn out, the conceptual offerings at the RCA are slight. Looming outside Sunderland's gleaming, newly built National Glass Centre - hot core of the university's glass project, opened to the public this month - is Zora Palova's lens-shaped Light Transformer, the world's largest glass sculpture, five metres high. Its three components each weigh 315kg - near the limit even for a Czech kiln. Sunderland so far has no kiln as big as that.

Palova, a leading Czech glass sculptor, who began her training aged 14, has unique knowledge of kiln-firing cycles. She was snapped up as the University of Sunderland's Research Professor in Glass following her solo show at London's Studio Glass Gallery, founded by Czechs two years ago.

"Sometimes in life, it's important to make a move that seems crazy," she says. "I'm 50 now, and I thought I should push myself to do something different." Of Light Transformer, which focuses light on to one spot, she says: "I found the seaside light in Sunderland beautiful, brighter than in my country. I wanted to catch it."

Her compatriot Sylva Petrova, 46, was chief curator at the Museum of Decorative Arts in Prague, the equivalent of the V&A, before Flavia Swann, director of the University's School of Arts, Design and Communications, invited her to become full-time Professor of Glass. Petrova says: "It's important to be in on the birth of something new."

The pounds 16 million raised for the National Glass Centre - the first new national institution to be formed for 10 years - comes from the National Lottery and the EC. It will be a permanent showcase for British glass. Part of the site will be taken up by commercial glass factories.

The Studio Glass Gallery's monumental 7ft figures by the Czech Ivana Srmkov, on show until 5 July, are a testament to her individuality of expression in the face of a regime that demanded uncritical art in order to earn hard currency. The Czechs joke that Czech glass is the "art of oppression" because the state requires up to 10 years of training.

Young British glass faces a similar problem - not so much one of socialist oppression, but the dilemma of whether to diverge into umpteen rocket-trails of funky conceptualism or develop a coherent national style. Conceptualism apart, it does seem to be acquiring a distinct identity.

Dan Klein, Britain's leading contemporary glass aficionado, who is now the University of Sunderland's Professor of Glass, says: "After the Sixties, the whole thing is taking off again, but I can't really tell in which direction. It's certainly no longer subject to the sort of Crafts Council and RCA straitjacket that makes you afraid to break the mould.

"We do need more enfants terribles with daring - but with taste, too. If British contemporary glass does have a face, then it is in casting. I detect a quiet, lyrical tradition taking shape."

He is echoed by Michael Robinson, renowned for assembling an internationally significant collection of contemporary glass while curator of decorative arts at the Ulster Museum in Belfast from the Seventies. "British glass is not like the mega craft clowning of the Americans," says Robinson. "It has a rather modest but well-observed individuality. It is carefully thought-out and tends to be rather gentle."

If British glass is gentle, then it is exemplified in pieces such as 38-year-old Angela Thwaites's tiny Sugar Eyes in the "Embody" exhibition of contemporary sculptural glass at the Northern Gallery for Contemporary Art, Sunderland. The joined cast-glass cups were sandblasted to give them their blurry, sugary surface. "As an artist, the fear of going blind is big with me," she says.

The same show has Anna Norberg's chair; three smooth, uncoloured pieces by Emma Woffenden that resemble both clinical apparatus and anatomy; and an optical piece by sa Bjork Thorsteindoittir.

There is a distinct architectural slant among the second- and third-year graduate show pieces in Sunderland's Glass Season - a reflection of the fact that the biggest British buyers of contemporary glass are not private collectors but companies. There is 24-year-old third-year Kathryn Hodgkinson's Relic, a 6ft column inspired by demolished walls in the Tyneside area. And a fetching foyer or boardroom piece, Protozoon, by 27-year-old third-year Amanda Notarianni, is a big, solid cast with a bubble inside that reflects the polished and sandblasted surface.

Some of the most delicate effects are procured by the most violent sandblasting. Lucien Simon, who has a studio in London, blasted sand at 100lb per square inch to shape his lyrical The Meteor in bonded glass.

He, too, produces monumental, company-friendly works, such as his 7ft- tall screw-like The Twist, stacked glass that can be shifted around to alter the angle of the thread.

For a truly monumental corporate art piece, visit Smithkline Beecham's research and development headquarters at Harlow, to see 40-year-old Graham Jones's dramatic nine-metre-tall, eight-metre-wide, curved, green, float- glass screen, Renaissance, commissioned by International Art Consultants. It should remind you of Michelangelo.

Cruise lines are big buyers of contemporary glass. Peter Layton, chairman of the Contemporary Glass Society and author of the definitive Glass Art, published by A & C Black, was commissioned by London Contemporary Art to install Centrum, spanning a five-deck atrium aboard the Royal Caribbean Cruise Line's Legend of the Seas.

Biggest private buyers of contemporary glass? The Americans. About 80 per cent of the glass bought from the Studio Glass Gallery is bought by Americans passing through London.

It is not expensive. Prices at the Studio Glass Gallery are pounds 1,500-pounds 10,000 - which would not buy much in the paintings market. Lucien Simon's The Meteor is pounds 1,500. Expect to pay pounds 2,000-pounds 4,500 for a piece by an established maker - equivalent to the top-price range of contemporary ceramics. At degree level, glass is cheap. Kathryn Hodgkinson is asking pounds 450 for Relic and Notarianni is asking pounds 320 for Protozoon. Some degree show pieces in Sunderland are as little as pounds 50

Sunderland Glass Season: National Glass Centre (0191-515 5555), Website: The Studio Glass Gallery, 63 Connaught Street, London W2 (0171-706 3013). A Celebration of Glass, until 1 August, Contemporary Applied Arts, 2 Percy Street, London W1 (0171-436 2344).

Sir Terry Frost Best-known for his abstract paintings and prints, and now at 82, Britain's most famous glass sculptor

Almost overnight, the 82-year-old artist Sir Terry Frost became Britain's most famous glass sculptor. Six works, made under his personal supervision by the Venetian master glass-blower Mario Badioli, went on show at a private view in London attended by the Duchess of Westminster. when?

Frost, famous for his bold abstract paintings and prints, was prompted by the London dealer in modern British art, Giovanni Tieuli, to travel with him to Venice and collaborate with Badioli - once a fellow student of Tieuli's at the Venice College of Art.

Frost says he got a shock when he first entered the glass foundry in Murano. "I've never sweated so much in all my life. But what really amazed me was seeing the ballet that is performed by three men at each of three kilns. Two of them have to move in unison from the time the hot glass is taken from the furnace on the end of a six-foot cane, until it is given to the master to be shaped. They have to move it sharpish."

He joined the ballet with trepidation. "I had arrived brimful of ideas but with no knowledge of glass. And my experience of craftsmen, whether woodworkers, steel-makers or printers, had been that the first thing they say is, `You can't do that.' They don't want any bloody artists causing trouble. If you're not careful, that can put a damper on creativity. And since these men's ancestors had been making glass since the 12th century, I asked myself, 'What on earth am I going to tell them?' - especially since I was communicating through an interpreter. I knew I was going to need both tact and confidence."

The crunch came when he rejected yellow as the colour for the second ring round the moon of his sculpture Aphrodite's Moon Dream (below), conceived from memories of skinny-dipping with art students in Aphrodite's pool in Cyprus in the Seventies.

"I wanted that big moon with circles of light. During those days in Cyprus, when the sun and moon were visible at the same time, the quality of light on the island made us feel that we were in the presence of two gods. It affected me tremendously. But to get that very personal concept over to someone else is almost asking too much."

Could the craftsmen mix some orange with the weak lemony yellow? No. Couldn't do that. Different cooling times.

Then Frost spotted a fragment of red glass on the foundry floor. "In the Italian sunlight, it looked marvellous." Tieuli, the master and his craftsmen went into deep consultation. Two hours later, Frost recalls, Tieuli emerged and announced: "Yes, it can be done. But it's cost me pounds 1,500 to change that bloody colour." That is, pounds 750 an hour.

"I'm an easy-going chap," says Frost, "but I think everyone realised that I would have gone home rather than make do with that yellow. You can't destroy a good idea. I did establish a means of communication with the master. It was through the eyes and the heart. I stood beside him and we both just knew when it was OK. Some magical things happened. It was a delight."

The price of a Frost glass sculpture such as Aphrodite's Moon Dream? About pounds 25,000 from Giovanni Tieuli, Piece Unique (0171-266 4139).