“There’s part of me that’s very clean and precise and part of me that’s the opposite. It’s a balance between reacting and controlling,” explains Brett Swenson, a 2011 resident fellow at the Creative Glass Center of America. The accuracy of his insight is visible in the full range of his work. On the one hand, his blown glass vessels are models of precision: thin-walled, delicate, complex and gracefully severe in silhouette. But Swenson puts as much or more time into thinking about and making things that are messy and unpredictable. Both approaches have organic references, but much of what might be called his “post-glass” oeuvre is primarily destructive. Some of these acts are recorded in video that becomes the lasting artwork. Others results in objects, exploded or broken, that are presented in pristine installations like scientific specimens. The contrast between items and setting tells the viewer all the more effectively that these are uncontrolled objects.
“These individual tests function best when they’re all together,” Swenson notes, using language that deliberately sets the objects apart from art and directs attention to the processes that produced them; however, he doesn’t call his work “process art.” The displays he constructs to house the products of his “tests” come closer to conventional ideas about art. As in his blown glass, each nuance, each shadow in the installations is considered and calibrated down to the last niggling detail including explanatory graphics. A presentation might seem just short of parody, less a display than a depiction of one smothered in formality, clarity and seeming directness.
The things on display are scientific experiments of a sort, records of catastrophic, sometimes beautiful changes wrought by energy (heat). At WheatonArts Swenson made a series of small fulgurites in a microwave. They can look like models of neurons: lumpy, mysterious, glistening, grayish things trailing spidery crinkled wires. The Wheaton versions are related to Swenson’s “Volcanic Fulgurite,” a formal installation showcasing lacy, frothy examples of this unusual material.
Fulgurite can occur when sand is struck by lightning. A vitrified tube that may be yards long snakes through the sand recording the passage of electricity. It’s said that fulgurites can also happen when a thunderstorm occurs during a volcanic eruption or when lightning strikes a piece of the igneous almost-mineral obsidian. It’s possible to buy fulgurites on line. An aphorism uttered by adult film actress and anti-censorship crusader Gloria Leonard, “The difference between pornography and erotica is lighting,” could be applied to Swenson’s use of fulgurites. Individually, his fulgurites resemble the tacky ones hawked by on-line purveyors of rock-hound curios and gimcrack jewelry, but Swenson’s presentation (including the lighting) elevates them to a respectable and intriguing status. There are also on line instructions for making fulgurites, but the process of courting a lightning strike sounds simultaneously dangerous and probably futile. For his wall installation “Experiments with Obsidian” Swenson spent two years studying the consequences of subjecting natural obsidian joined with various things, including calibrated borosilicate flasks, to heat in the glory hole. The manufactured objects place constraints on the inchoate form of bubbling vitrified obsidian. There’s an implication of bondage or torture in some of them. “When I’m doing these pseudo-natural formations, I’m just setting up the circumstances for something to happen. I’m guiding the process but the results are surprising,” Swenson says.
Other works emphasize observation, treating violence as a process to be considered unemotionally. Swenson’s “Contemplating Chaos,” video shows LCD screens systematically heated with a torch until they crack. A darting spectrum of color changes follows the movement of the torch and prefigures the patterns of shattering glass. When cooled, the motion of the torch is clearly visible in the network of cracks. A little like raku firing in ceramics, the destructive acts join unpredictability with control and suggest that real control is illusory. In Swenson’s “Execution” video a figure in dark clothing punches a hole in a sheet of glass with the flame of a blowtorch. An antithesis to glass blowing, these improvised actions, including the fulgurite experiments, force glass into a different state or mode, a kind of transition linked in Swenson’s thinking with alchemy, the ancestor of chemistry and other sciences. Indeed, they do seem to probe the nature and moment of the transformation of one thing into another. Swenson says he seeks, “…a dialogue between me and the materials. If I’m too overbearing I can see it (in the work) and I think others can, too.”
At CGCA, Swenson began performing with the collaborative Burnt Asphalt Family. The group’s lively and unpredictable slightly transgressive performances in which they use hot glass and glass techniques to prepare and serve food to an audience utilizes Swenson’s skills as a glass-blower and his experience in choreographing the unexpected. They also give him the opportunity to interpret the role of creator and destroyer in yet another context.
Written by Robin Rice