Dafna Kaffeman Essay

Dafna Kaffeman Essay

Dafna Kaffeman
Spring 2003 Fellow

Although artists using any processes involving glass can apply for a Residency at the Creative Glass Center of America, Dafna Kaffeman, a Spring 2003 Resident Fellow, is one of the few to devote most of her time at Wheaton Village to lamp-working. Born in Israel, Kaffeman studied art in Amsterdam because she feels that Europeans are committed to a conceptual approach. Most of her study was concentrated on glass as a medium, although she often combines it with other, sometimes surprising, materials and says, “I resent any separation between glass art and art.

Kaffeman is familiar with glass blowing and casting techniques. She studied lampworking in Venice. Because of this form of glass work, at the simple level of bead-making, for example, is readily accessible to hobbyists, in the minds of some, lamp-working has become almost synonymous with kitsch. Kaffeman sees beyond the obvious to subtle expressive potential. In particular, she enjoys the more intimate contact with hot glass. In all art-making, she says, “To work with your hands is very important; to touch [the work], but you can’t touch hot glass. Flame-work is closer to touching. It’s more accessible. I have more control.”

A recent series “Animality” is paradoxically untouchable yet tactile even in its cooled state. The shape of an unidentifiable animal pelt is displayed rug-like, almost at floor level, on a low horizontal surface. The “skin” is silicone into which countless slightly curved spikes of glass have been imbedded to resemble fur. “I don’t think everyone will realize it is glass,” Kaffeman accurately observes. Up close, the “fur” looks more like quills. The rich color and translucency of glass invite touch–a touch inhibited by the obvious fact that the pointed spines are treacherous, fearsomely tooth-like in form. At the same time, the threads of glass are fragile. That contrast of strength and fragility is what the artist is aiming for. As a child, she worked with a veterinarian. “Animals are a good way of watching ourselves,” she learned. “In this series I tried to find animal feelings which exist in ourselves: fear, sex — something which we [humans] make very complex — violence. Some needs are so basic in us. They never change. I was trying to say, ‘Is that so bad?’ In love and war, many people try to hide their passion. I was trying to create objects that would talk about this feeling. Maybe from this work, you would get a feeling of trying to love something or kill something.”

Although the pelt silhouette — scaled perhaps to the size of a cocker spaniel, but not resembling a dog — is instantly readable, a second look reveals that it is composed of individual island-like shapes with irregular contours, contours which are asymmetrical within the over-all bi-lateral symmetry of the piece. The forms could be interpreted as a fragmented manuscript or a map, alluding to the scale of continents. Equally, the individual sections could be seen as pieces of oddly-colored, grassy turf. This fragmentation and suggestion of unfixed scale deepen Kaffeman’s notion that human understanding (or misunderstanding) and instincts are mysterious territory.

“I think a lot and I see a lot before I work,” she says. “I never like to say ‘This means this and that means that.’ I always think of a concept and write. I never know what it will look like.” Although she writes regularly for herself and for publication and is a published poet in Hebrew, Kaffeman often does not title her work. She writes about her work: ideas and “what I am going through and what I feel,” but, so far, she says “I never directly combine [poetry and glass].” But she is considering a future interactive project which would unite glass objects and poems.

At CGCA, resident artists are asked to work in the hot shop which is often open to the public. While others blew glass, Kaffeman attracted a fascinated audience, around the table where she sat flame-working. Much of the time was spent making variations on the same small skeleton of a four-legged animal. Only those familiar with animal anatomy would instantly recognize the skeletons as horses, abstracted, with perhaps fewer ribs, but definitely true to the beautiful structure of the animal. Kaffeman draws a calligraphic quality from the molten glass. The springy fetlocks curl down and forward into tiny hooves with earth-grabbing power. Backwards-protruding hocks almost resemble tiny wings.

These miniature horses, often executed in black glass, are disturbing. The skull without its organs of perception: the sensitive muzzle, eyes, and ears, and decorative mane, becomes all jaw — almost predatory. “Death, fear, horror–anything not of this world,” she acknowledges as part of her concept. “I feel the need to do it, but it will take time for me to get the distance to understand it emotionally.” Experientially, she links these skeletal horses to emaciated horses she saw in Spain and to Cervantes’ novel Don Quixote. “I’m a big romantic. I grew up on romantic stories. I see the horses in pairs. Not male and female, but just horse.”

At CGCA, Kaffeman experimented with covering the skeletons with vinyl. “When I made the horses, I wanted to cover them. I don’t know whether to protect or to hide them.” She could melt the plastic onto the glass, leaving raw edges, but the experiment though compelling and disquieting was not resolved during her residency.

Kaffeman began two other bodies of unrelated work. One, again flame working, was making dolls or puppets: articulated limbs and heads which could perhaps be joined into complete figures, but which also made an interesting impression in strings like necklaces of arms ending in hands with tiny splayed fingers. Her final project was casting pate de verre silhouettes borrowed from an old print of a hot shop which she found the French book in a Spanish flea market. Kaffeman’s participation in the public in a demonstration of glass-blowing at CGCA and other American facilities inspired the flat silhouettes which may be manipulated like a model theatre (or toy theatre of cut-out paper).

All of Kaffeman’s work seems to point to the disjuncture between appearances and inner realities or the gap between an outward show of civilization and the instinctive animal emotions beneath the skin. She wants to expose the mysteries of that inner animalistic working, which all humans share and which we must suppress. Or, perhaps she asks, “must we?”