Elizabeth Swinburne Essay

Elizabeth Swinburne Essay

Elizabeth Swinburne
Winter 2005 Fellow

Public figures like to “press the flesh” in a kind of minimal serial intimacy of hand-shaking, hugging, and baby kissing. Everyone thinks about “first impressions,” a synecdoche for the literal meeting of flesh: our hands touching others’ hands. Cool and brittle, glass might seem a paradoxical substitute for skin. Yet each is fragile and enduring and can be regarded as a container of sorts. Each is sensuous and tactile and born of a mysterious, primordial energy. Liz Swinburne, a Winter, 2005 Resident Fellow at the Creative Glass Center of America brings her skills in a broad range of glass techniques to the expression of a profound humanism in which the medium of glass is more than incidental.

Since around 1990, Swinburne has integrated the image of the hand into work which is often abstract and vessel based. Sometimes she casts three-dimensional versions of her own hand. These are applied, disembodied, to blown forms in which the fluidity of the hot glass is emphasized by supporting membranes which have been gently encouraged to bend away from the purity of a geometric shape into the suggestion of wind-blown leaves or wave-morphed bubbles.

The internationally recognized British artist has supported herself for 20 years primarily by teaching, most recently in Amsterdam where she currently resides. Her work can be found in important collections, including the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Düsseldorf Kunstmuseum, the Hokkaido Museum, and the Prague Museum of Applied Arts. For the present, she plans to devote herself primarily to art-making except for occasional Master Classes.

A 2000 solo exhibition at the National Glass Center in Sunderland centered around the installation Lightworks. In this mysterious space, spotlighted glass spheres, impressed and imprinted with silhouettes of the human hand, cast enlarged, intersecting shadow images over the gallery walls. On the floor, mounds of the shredded paper suggested a nest-like, incubation for the clutter of viscous, egg-like bubbles and softened right angles; while the walls were shadowed with reminders of the pervasive negative hand silhouettes in Paleolithic caves.

Swinburne is fully cognizant of the relationship between the vessel form and the body. By linking the imagery of Lightworks to “a petrified dinosaur’s nest,” she conjured up the notion of prehistory predating even human incubation. The light itself, its sources are hidden among objects in the room, penetrates the solidity of glass and silently splashes not just handprints but odd fractures and distortions in the glass against the walls, a record of unstable energy.

In airy adjacent galleries, more traditional pieces were displayed on pedestals. A thin partially furled platter-like roundel of blown glass is weighted on one edge with a life-cast hand, one of the “Fragile Touch” series. The marks of hands are physically impressed into a flock of hot blown cylinders (using metal forms). The hand is also recorded as a two-dimensional print. The clustered tall, severe glasses are each marked with a palm and fingers, giving the initial impression of a recent drinks break shared by a crowd of grubby-handed workers. Or were the guests more god-like? The artist’s use of gold or platinum suggests luxury, a kind of Midas touch with a glittery, mirroring aspect. The metallic hand prints are heat-fused onto the glass. Like glass the metal reflects, but unlike the transparent glass, the print is opaque; when backlit it reads as a dark solid silhouette. A second glance transforms the segmented splayed finger marks, visually layered as we look through the ranks of vessels, into plant-like forms of stems and leaves. Swinburne works with clear, untinted glass in order to fully engage the sense of light and air, shadow and substance.

Swinburne is now seeking new directions for her work. “The whole idea of the CGCA residency was to leave familiar things. I’ve told myself I have two months to play and the last month to pull something together,” she says. “The range of equipment and range of expertise [at a single location in Wheaton Village] means that you can respond to things in a very natural way.” In Amsterdam, Swinburne must take half-finished pieces from one studio to another in order to utilize the skills, she often fuses into a single work: kiln casting, blown and other hot techniques, and cold-working.

Swinburne’s recent succulent “squiggles” are composed of blown glass elements which are later joined in the kiln. Visually, they are playful and organic, reminiscent of some sort of giant curly pasta, though perhaps a pasta transformed into a kind of viscous sea creature. To Swinburne, the writhing segments suggest “hair or roots.” At CGCA, she was experimenting with devitrifying such pieces in the kiln, developing a kind of milky, opalescent opacity. As in many of her works, the use of repeated units suggests seeds or eggs,

“I tend not to ‘play safe,’” she acknowledges. “I like to put myself in a place which is quite scary to see: Can I deliver?” In the past, time pressure has produced “really exciting work;” however, the opportunity to experiment, to “play” at Wheaton Village gives Swinburne the chance to build a fund of ideas upon which she can draw in the future.