Elizabeth Kelly Essay

Elizabeth Kelly Essay

Elizabeth Kelly
Summer 2002 Fellow

“I’m very, very rarely disappointed with color,” says Elizabeth Kelly, a summer 2002 resident at the Creative Glass Center of America. “I just enjoy the process. There is always an element which is delightful.” The Australian artist has done extensive research in mixing batches of colored glass, a skill which remains surprisingly mysterious and inexact in today’s glass studios. Kelly shared her knowledge and color recipes that she developed over eight or nine years, with her fellow CGCA residents, giving all an opportunity to experiment with colors that would ordinarily not be available to them. CGCA contributed half the extra expense for the costly colorants and the four current fellows with studio supervisor Doug Ohm, who used the glass in his own work, chipped in.

The group collaborated in choosing the colors for a sequence of shared batches. Kelly was especially keen to work with erbium pink (the most expensive), a clear transparent “girly” pink; and neodymium/selenium, a dichroic glass varying dramatically from rose pink to blue violet depending on the light source. The group also chose steel blue, grey, and pale chromium green.

Kelly began a systematic research into color in glass in 1995 when she received an extraordinary two year post-graduate stipend usually awarded to science students at the University of Sydney. “I went hell for leather and covered a lot of ground. It was a huge effort and a huge achievement.” She adds. “I’m a colorist. I’m not interested in chemistry. I do it because it’s a necessary evil.” A painter’s feeling for color informs her work. “Half” of Kelly’s family members are painters and her favorite artists include Sol LeWitt, with his endless programmed color variations, and Robert Delaunay, a colorist of a more mystical bent. As a designer for mechanical and hand production, and as head of the Glass Studio at JamFactory Contemporary Craft and Design in Adelaide, Kelly has a comprehensive background in blowing production glass. She is equally confident and experienced as a sculptor and installation artist and sees herself as an artist first, a specialist in glass who, nevertheless, will use whatever material is most suitable to realize a concept.

In 1997, Kelly worked with a tool designer on a major series of non-glass toys whose large scale offered a child’s perspective to adult viewers. Magnets controlled some moving parts of these Brobdingagian playthings in primary colors. An installation of some 80 dolls, Masters of the Universe , also produced in 1997, was a miniaturized contrast to the giant toys. The parade of elaborately costumed dolls mimicked a Mardi Gras parade, and on an personal level allowed Kelly to reclaim a virtually doll-less childhood. She collected the eight inch fashion and action dolls for seven years and dressed them in two months using found materials, and the assistance of about a half dozen people. Gender-bending and bold cultural parody dominates the works. Theoretically, she “was looking at early childhood and development, at lateral thought and play.” But she simultaneously allowed herself to play, “Subverting as kids do. They will mar and scar beyond the format they’re given. I had really good fun.”

There were few hints of Kelly’s boisterous, iconoclastic side in the work — mostly blown glass — she produced at CGCA. She even commented that her work there was “a little serious for my liking,” though it is undoubtedly faithful to Kelly’s aesthetic values: vision-related and conceptually austere. She produced a number of functional objects, enrobing colored glass in white for an oddly muted effect which nevertheless calls attention to color.

A related sculptural series consists of closed boxes, parallelepipeds with tiny openings or “portals” which reveal, to the alert viewer, an inner layer of color. The shapes could be considered house-like. “I see them as hollow ware,” Kelly says. Like the similarly layered bottles and bowls, the walls of these works are unusually thick for blown glass. Kelly is interested in the “mass and weight” of the object. Light penetrates the interior dully through the walls, while the inner layer is directly illuminated through the small opening. A muted dawning or twilight color leaks out of the opening like perfume: elusive, an illusion of an illusion. The perception of color as a sort of atmosphere is somewhat analogous to the color haze in some early pieces by James Turrell. Turrell used electricity to generate color in wall-size fields; these pieces are effective in natural or artificial light. They are not large, varying perhaps from five inches to ten or twelve inches in height. Though Kelly believes that actual size is not a factor in quality, the small scale does permit the viewer to enter into an intimate visual dialogue with the object.

Most items in the series are six sided, slightly skewed box forms. A few with pointed tops tend to cluster separately. “I see them [all] in groupings, in families. They do sit together,” Kelly says. Grouped, they suggest villages or gatherings. The connection between internal and external is obvious, but more teasing and intellectually provocative is the reference to sight. The tiny opening through which we see the internal color is a bit like the pupil of the eye itself. Because that subtle color emanation is something easily overlooked; seeing it becomes a reward for attention.

In an effort to move away from symmetry, Kelly has also evolved a series of narrow peaked asymmetrical forms in translucent glass. The smooth curves might suggest shapes of melting ice, though she relates the open concave profiles to fish. Varying thickness of satin-surfaced glass hold and transmit light differently extracting the maximum variation from a single saturated color. Lucidity of form and light dominates this sequence, though Kelly experimented with hand coloring some clear examples.

Simple forms require a lot of cold working, “seeking a surface quality: translucent and reflective. I’ve been told I have a Scandinavian aesthetic,” Kelly mentions. Though she shares a feeling for spare lines with the Scandinavians, their work is a bit dour for her liking. She turns to Kant’s distinction of “pleasure not taken lightly” to describe her objectives in making sculpture. “There’s always an element of play in display.” She matches her meticulous approach to glass with thoughtful and penetrating language. As her career develops, we can anticipate a continuing conversation between play and discipline, sensory pleasure and conceptual rigor: certainly an interesting dialogue.