Robert Gardner Essay

Robert Gardner Essay

Robert Gardner
Winter 2002 Fellow

“Everything can be seen in two’s: partnership, cell division–most everything!” Robert Gardner, a winter, 2002 Resident Fellow at the Creative Glass Center of America tends to think in terms of pairs, pairs in the sense of dyads not dichotomies. Even the solid glass spheres, reoccurring modules in his sculpture, are bipartite, cast in hemispheres which are later joined.

The steel and glass piece that he mounted on the wall at the entrance to his personal studio is a poignant example of linked pairs. A memorial to the events of 9/11, it literally illustrates the concept of fragility and figuratively recognizes the delicate balance of stability, the necessary but fictional bubble of complacency within which we all live. The symmetrical sculpture consists of a central steel pendulum encaging three cast glass balls. The heavy weight is suspended on the wall between a pair of vertically-mounted, transparent manufactured cylinders–glass pipes–symbolizing the World Trade Center towers. Any passer-by could shatter those pipes with a flick of the wrist. It’s almost tempting to see what would happen if the pendulum were set in motion.

A feeling for imminent narrative often inhabits Gardner’s sculpture. A fan of Duchamp and Dada, he is sensitive to social cues in art. As a side-line, Gardner makes custom light fixtures for architects, an exacting occupation that perhaps gives him an exaggerated idea of “perfection.”

It’s a quality which he says he does not seek in his art. “In glass, I’m not drawn to work that’s very clean, pristine, overly-worked and doesn’t seem to have any life.” Nevertheless, Gardner’s own sculpture, while far from lifeless, has a high degree of finish; a crisp sense of order, which some might find akin to perfection.

For work completed before the CGCA, glass spheres and other simple geometric shapes were sand cast and finished with exacting, time consuming cold working, the glass artists’ bete noir. Gardner has often ground the curved surfaces into a field of tiny polished facets, very beautiful but painstaking. “I don’t like cold working, but the effect is sometimes worth it,” he admits. At CGCA, he experimented with a shell mold process which will facilitate lost wax casting and minimize cold working.

Gardner’s 2002 residency at CGCA was really a return. He originally came to the center as a glass novice, a shop assistant to William Bernstein, who did a master residency around 12 years ago. Now he is a master himself, executing his own ideas. “Glass is not a lot different from candy,” Gardner suggests. He likes to play with the subtleties of luminosity. Light penetrates each half of cast hemispheres differently. Sometimes in his work, the distinction is enhanced by the addition of color either glazed onto the surface or melted into the glass. His attention to the effects of light and shadow, expressed in his fabrication of light fixtures as well as his personal work, is surely a carry over from his early interest in film and television. The quality of the sky and sea and the dramatic architecture of Miami Beach where he was born also contribute to his artistic vision. “It’s the magician in me: I like the idea of transforming sand into something magical. I stop short of shaman,” he jokes.

Today, though glass and metal are primary, he is eclectic in his choice of materials. “When there are things I want to say, I’m totally experimental.” A large American flag in black and white rubber was part of a recent installation completed at the African American Community Center in Asheville, NC, where Gardner lives with his wife and daughter. The whole project explored the semiotics of public communication, especially as it relates to children. He notes, “Most sinage in America asks for your trust and safety.” Available free to exhibition visitors, a series of fluorescent stickers admonished them with childhood rules such as, “Don’t climb on top of other people” or “Don’t Bite!” Each idea was illustrated on the circular sticker with curious literalness. “Scissors are for paper ONLY!” featured a hand silhouette with a severed index finger.

More directly related to his CGCA work, is a series based on repeated vessel-like solid forms housed in metal carriers or shelves. By covering the bottom of the glass pieces in gold leaf, Gardner creates the illusion of some luminous fluid suffusing the “bottle.” He also places hardball-size “candy drops” in steel baskets or confines them inside heavy black wire chutes. Although the pieces are geometric and orderly, he envisions them as an extension of nature. “I’m not attracted to works that don’t let nature in. We live in technology: our lives, car, house. . . . We are nature. It is inside of us. Our technology is very disconnected from us. When I use metal I want it to be soft and have a fine surface. People have often said that they really like to touch my work.”

Yet as we see in Gardner’s fondness for suspended forms, he enjoys interrupting a natural law like gravity, perhaps because intervention attracts attention. Glass cones hanging to one side of a chain illustrate gravity’s absolute character by disrupting what would be the pure verticality of a plumb bob. Throughout Gardner’s work we find an oblique homage to the manipulation of nature which is the basis of art making and human society in general. Gardner quietly explores that unmarked territory between natural and unnatural, recognizing perhaps that the two are another inextricably joined pair.