Brent Marshall Essay by Robin Rice
Resident Fellow Brent Marshall came to the Creative Glass Center of America with the “idea of change.” For nearly a year, the American artist has been living in England and the experience led to reflection on both form and process in his work. Distance intensified a need he already felt “to see and work differently.”
Architecture and building run through Marshall’s oeuvre. The relief panels which are the focus of his work at CGCA only obliquely bring to mind the Constructivists, the Russian artists who were influenced by Cubism and by their recognition of the growing importance of the machine. Nevertheless, he acknowledges the group as an influence on his work. His earlier sculpture, combining glass with a industrial materials like textured steel and wire mesh has more direct links to the Russian artists. In addition, silhouetted forms of silos, bridges, and utilitarian buildings reflect the Midwestern Ohio location where they were made. Centered, symmetrical and concentrated– more classical and temple-like than Constructivist work; they share a similar recognition of the ambiguity of space and a deconstruction of the illusion of solidity.
“I am one of five kids and I was the only one that was really interested in sitting and just drawing,” he says. “It was the act of doing that kept my attention for hours and hours and hours building imaginary cities. Once I was done, that was it: I wasn’t interested in playing with it as a city.”
About six months ago Marshall set up a cold glass studio in West Yorkshire, UK. His time in England has reinforced a transition which began before Marshall and his wife left Cleveland. “This all started with the renovation of our kitchen,” he remembers. Sliding glass door permitted passers-by full view of the kitchen, an uncomfortable fish-bowl sort of feeling. “I said, ‘Okay, I’m going to make some tiles.’ We put in wooden doors,” he says, “and I made glass tiles for the sidelights.” These simple glass tiles evolved into the nature imagery of his current work.
The shelves of his workspace at CGCA, are stacked with neat rows of near identical elements: soft green rectangles with angled leaves, simple blue undulations, pale yellow ginkgo leaves. His cold casting studio in England is only 10′ x 12.’ Here, he elaborates certain casts, especially a series of goddess-like faces, with hot applications in which he sprinkles in color, gold, or trails hot glass into the graphite mold.
“Blowing was what got me hooked [on glass], but my temperament is more geared toward mold-making,” Marshall notes. “There’s something enjoyable about holding the work in your hand rather than feeling it through newspaper.” Each element is hot-cast in graphite–or occasionally plaster–molds constructed mostly with hand tools. He will assemble the individual elements into panels after his residency ends. Marshall works hard. Three days a week, he casts as much as 450 pounds of glass in one night with the help of fellow CGCA residents. “I don’t think any of them will ever cast glass again!” he jokes. In exchange for their help, Marshall assists the others, who are all blowing glass.
The finished elements will be fashioned into large panels which function as room dividers or windows. “This will fit into the architectural space, but it’s not based on architecture,” Marshall says, referring to his earlier sculpture. The panels will reveal different personalities through the day. When light passes through, the effect resembles stained glass; however, when lit from only one side, as, for example, indoors at night, relief elements will be highlighted. To enhance this aspect, Marshall selectively polishes some areas to a high gloss, emphasizing the curve of a cheek or forehead and, simultaneously, opening a view into the depths of the glass. Other areas will have a softer, matte texture.
As for imagery, “England is the land of gardens,” Marshall says. “I’ve always been connected with the out-of-doors because my father is a naturalist.” He’s developed an ingenious group of Jungendstil-like designs which incorporate virtually identical components in different configurations. The components are modular in silhouette, but all are subtly unique. Oftentimes, the artist says, he translates readings into panel designs. For example, the description of Solomon’s temple in the Bible led to an image of a lily in a design he calls Solomon’s Garden; though, he says, “It’s not built to be philosophical. I like to look at beautiful things. The inspiration is a personal thing for me.”
Serene classical female faces, some wreathed with leaves, are the key elements of several designs. Variations in color give each countenance a particular flavor. In some, lines of green cut through translucent golds and pinks, shadowing the image when it is seen from certain points of view. In others blues, which will become violet in the sunlight, predominate.
At least for now, Marshall has abandoned the severe architecture of his earlier sculpture for a softer, nature-related imagery. Nevertheless, he is still making buildings, more seriously than ever before, or more specifically, “portals,” both windows and doors: spaces which welcome us into an ever-changing celebration of the natural world.