Piper Brett Essay by Robin Rice

Piper Brett Essay by Robin Rice


Piper Brett
Spring 2006 Fellow

Piper Brett’s sculpture is minimal—or, more properly, neo-minimal. It violates the tenets of historic twentieth century Minimalism in that, however simple, machined, and free from the artist’s hand it may appear, Brett made it. Unlike the prototypical Minimalist, the Spring, 2006 Resident Fellow at the Creative Glass Center of America, does not sketch or describe an idea and hire someone else to fabricate. One reason she makes things herself is to notice how materials behave and to respond. This determines the final form a work takes.

Another equally compelling reason for doing it herself might be that Brett knows no one else could do it better. A young artist, she supports her own sculpture in part by fabricating things for others. Her work, especially glass, is much in demand. She’s skilled and a perfectionist — a perfectionist with a sense of humor.

One of her favorite pieces she’s made for her own use is a coffee table she constructed from a shopping cart and Plexiglas with a red stripe. Its supermarket origin is undisguised and contributes to a sense of play in the table. “I like to look at shopping carts,” she explains. “They have a personality. How can you look at something that somebody has made and not form an opinion about it?”

Brett’s sculpture embodies narrative or dialogue, not typical elements in classic Minimalism. A material held in tension, becomes in her work a metaphor for human tension and the perplexities of human interaction.

The phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty wrote about the notion ofchiasm, a kind of reversibility in which an action or characteristic is completed or complemented by its mirroring opposite. The prototypical example is that of touching and being touched. How does one distinguish clearly between the two? Clearly one cannot exist without the other. For Merleau-Ponty it was important to recognize such dualities as two sides of the same coin.

Although Brett is not a student of Merleau-Ponty, her work illustrates qualities of chiasm. A series of large sculptures of metal and Plexiglas interact with a corner (of the gallery or other exhibition space) in ways which initially appear simple but are ultimately ambiguous and complex. Speaking of a piece where Plexiglas appears to cut into the wall, Brett says, “It’s a little like a passive aggressive situation. [In earlier works], I had my way with the Plexiglas a little more. It’s like me and the steel telling the plexi what to do. In earlier pieces, the plexi is more passive.” By inclding the corner, a given of the display location, as a material in the sculpture Brett indicates its dynamic participation in the work.

Brett is intrigued by sculpture that deals with architecture or relies on architecture and she appreciates space which is traced or encompassed by more linear elements as part of the volumetric character of the work. “Initially, I was interested the outline of space and interaction of materials. The steel and the plexi form a sort of outline. They are like stick figures. They don’t take up a lot of room but they have a presence.”

In all this series, she found that the simplicity of steel was particularly compatible with Plexiglas.

According to Brett, the ultimate question about almost all her sculpture is “Who is doing what and to whom?” Is the steel making the strip of Plexiglas curve so tightly? Or is the Plexiglas insinuating itself into the wall? Because materials are actively curved, bent, or compressed in the finished sculpture, their relationship does not seem stable. When we return to the gallery, will they be in the same positions?

What Brett calls “the role playing thing” continues to influence her work at CGCA. Although her sculpture in recent exhibitions has not included glass, she is a skilled glass blower and technician and has worked as a gaffer for artists like Hank Murta Adams and Beth Lipman. She says, “Working with materials like metal and steel and rubber is helping me understand how materials can speak and I want to understand how I can make glass speak for me. I think I’m still in the midst of it.”

A major project at Wheaton Arts and Cultural Center has become an exploration of the relationship between two unlike shapes and materials. The first is a series of blown glass spheres which have been manipulated while hot to make a depression into which a second metal bar-like element is inserted. The squared-off bar appears to penetrate into the skin of the sphere. Or perhaps it is being sucked in by the opening and consumed.

“I didn’t come here thinking I was going to make these balls with the cavity and put things into them. That was not the plan at all, but now I’m thinking ‘yeah! If that’s all I make in the hot shop that’s great.’ Take home a lot of them and do something with them.” The individual balls, currently about the size of large grapefruit, have something of the appearance of pieces of dough into which an something has been pressed. If they were cookies, the opening might be a space for the insertion of nuts and raisins. The glass pleats and deforms around the regularly shaped depression.

“They seem humorous but maybe not so humorous.” Brett points out that “a duality of control” is expressed in the ambiguous relationship between the organic-seeming sphere and machined geometric bar. “The whole idea is that one is forcing something onto the other one. Are they eating or being stuffed? Are they consumers or victims? Who’s aggressive? Who’s passive?”

In her studio, she uses red painted wooden bars as stand-ins for metal which will be fabricated later. She feels that two materials are essential to the idea. Formally, she’s considering configurations vaguely resembling barbells and others which might include three balls at the ends of a three branched piece of metal.

She sandblasted and painted the glass balls white for her maquettes, but does not plan to paint them for the finished works. She says, “Each time I’m in the hot shop, the balls get bigger. “I like making big stuff.” A new batch of black glass will allow Brett to explore the effect of that color on the design. She plans to chrome some of the metal elements, making them mirror-like. “How will black and chrome change it? That’s the kind of stuff I’m exploring. I just like it that I’m here and I’m figuring this stuff out.”