Mark Ferguson Essay by Robin Rice

Mark Ferguson Essay by Robin Rice

Mark Ferguson
Winter 2006 Fellow

“Get the Point?” Mark Ferguson seems to ask with his representations of push pins. It’s a point you’d probably rather think about than run into; those push pins are huge! Ferguson, the recipient of a fellowship at the Creative Glass Center of America, planned to expand the push pins both in scale and context during his Winter, 2006 residency. The Brobdingnagian glass and stainless steel pins are striking as abstract, Brancusi-like minimal forms and even more memorable as meditations on human agency, whether the manifestations of science or the institutionalized infliction of pain. It’s not a stretch to view these quotidians yet potentially wounding items as sly critiques of corporate culture.

Push pins are not the artist’s only subject. He’s said, “I have a need to roam with ideas. I tend to jump around,” but Ferguson tends to explore his ideas through serial works. The push pins address themes developed in his earlier flashlight series: the broad metaphoric resonances of a familiar functional object; distortions of scale, and a form which has simple phallic qualities. Some might read these ubiquitous manufactured forms—both flashlights and pushpins—which, however unconsciously, express our collective predilections, as a commentary on male-dominated culture. Ferguson, though perhaps acknowledging the formal relationship, probably has no such intent; but, as in any engaging work, the potential meanings are almost endless.

In Little Mystery (2002) an old-fashioned flashlight cast in translucent red glass with metal accents lies on a pair of wrinkled bronze “leather” gloves, the whole a trompe l’oiel. A photograph of this work could illustrate a classic mystery novel jacket. Here, the function of the flashlight as an illuminator of mysteries is illuminated. The choice of red, a color of high energy and emotional intensity, could hint at a story of bloody murder. The rigid form of the flashlight case provides the sense of containment and security at the core of a good mystery story. Nevertheless, however real the flashlight and gloves appear, the mystery itself seems emblematic. As in the mystery story genre, a puzzle which promises and delivers a solution, the real-life chaos of never understanding is averted.

Red Light On consists of green blue and red Pyrex glass casts of the same almost Platonic twentieth-century flashlight in Little Mystery. Ferguson actually collects small flashlights, often buying them at flea markets, but “I like that particular flashlight,” he says. Only the red flashlight (“On”) is surmounted by a radiating cone of clear glass which captures ambient light to mimic the spreading illumination of projected light.

At the request of some collectors, Ferguson has made flashlights that literally light up. He believes that his flashlight works probably reflect a life-long interest in light. He studied photography in high school. Later, partly inspired by Narcissus Quagliata, he moved into stained glass, drawn by the effects of light and colored glass, before turning to kiln casting. He received a BFA from the Rhode Island School of Design and a Masters Degree in 1990. He worked for a year as an assistant to Howard Ben Tré who influenced his thinking about form.

Ferguson is aware that both flashlights and pushpins are associated with the revelation or display of knowledge or information. Flashlights literally “enlighten.” Sometimes they are used to show the way, the path we should follow. Pushpins are slightly more ambiguous. They display — as they impale and damage.

Ferguson’s first push pins of solid colored glass impaled bright-colored abstract squiggles of lamp-worked glass. Like mysterious fragments from Dalí, they appear soft, almost jellied— droopy yet springy, sometimes writhing, possibly still alive.

The penetration of ambiguous artificial yet weirdly lively matter by theoretically sharp steel shafts can induce a slight frisson of revulsion and fascination. In later works, Ferguson used the pins to tack less disturbingly organic items to the wall. Similarly, the arrangement of a couple of pins, angled vertically point-to-point or, as the title suggests, Point Counter Point (2005) is disarmingly humorous. He says the oversize pins are not intended to be confrontational but about “problem-solving. It’s kind of an Alice in Wonderland thing. “

In Small Homage de Chirico, Ferguson constructs the illusion of a red glove tacked to the wall with an eight inch long, dark green glass topped pin. The link to de Chirico is embodied in implied narrative, scale shifts, shadows, and simple shapes. The glass shape of the pin resembles de Chirico’s obsessive smoke stacks and cannons. A theme of loss, evoked by the solitary setting of many de Chirico works, especially, the 1911-1913 Ariadne paintings, is suggested by the glove.

The glove also expresses a heightened awareness of hands, a sub-theme in Ferguson’s work. Hands are the corporeal tools which manipulate tools. A singular glove like this one might be one which was found and displayed so its owner could reclaim it. It might be a specimen for others to study or a clue in another mystery. But the red glass glove is tiny, miniature or child-size; the push pin is huge and ominously seems to pierce this severed hand surrogate at a vulnerable, potentially fatal, point, the wrist.

Even the name push pin specifies a motion of the hand. “I consider my work to be figurative,” Ferguson has said, “but it’s all about the absence of the figure.” He also acknowledges that art is to some degree “all self-referential.” So the artist is aware that his own hands are ever-present in his sculpture, sculpture that is based on tools designed for the ultimate human tool.

At Wheaton Arts and Cultural Center, Ferguson plans direct furnace casting using graphite molds, a technique he’s currently not able to do in his own studio, but one he used frequently during his work at UrbanGlass (1993-2004), where he’s a member of the Board of Directors. Ferguson will make oversize flashlights as well as push pins and he hopes the sophisticated technical facilities will allow him to cast many large pins quickly so that he can group them as one often sees them on bulletin boards or walls, perhaps moving toward a larger sense of installation and narrative.