Vanessa Cutler Essay by Robin Rice
Fall 2008 Fellow
In imagery and technology, Vanessa Cutler’s work in glass spans centuries but undoubtedly her recent innovations in waterjet glass cutting have made the biggest impact on the contemporary glass field. The Fall, 2008 Fellow at the Creative Glass Center of America, has specialized in architectural glass. She’s restored old stained glass church windows and made her own figurative more post-modern designs in contemporary windows. Her recent work is more minimal and modular. Suburbia, for example, presents a field of identical peaked structures relieved by a single taller peak, no doubt representing a church. It could be a scary vision of a robotic future, however, the perfect repetition of translucent glass elements combined with the interplay of light provides a sense of satisfaction and, even, pleasure intrinsic to the very lack of individuality.
Aside from its broadly architectural character, one element that unites Cutler’s disparate approaches and types of work are her willingness to harness her creativity to complex external parameters: She is as comfortable analyzing and reconstructing historic designs as she is devising strategies to maximize the potential of waterjet milling. Cutler’s way is not the histrionic “self-expression” of the artist of Hollywood and novelistic clichés. Rather, she seems to relish analytic problem-solving. A cooler more intellectual distance is the kind of expression that suits her. She agrees to a point, “I’ve never said there was a theme about my work except it explores technology. But it’s a metaphor for who I am.”
Cutler says she likes to “take the idea of a machine and make it hand-made.” Pale, icy minimal geometries, regular and precise, are Cutler’s most challenging and path-breaking works, though she has recently expanded into more three-dimensional, undulating, and strongly colored forms. These are sculptures that contradict another familiar art cliché: the image of a flowing molten bubble of glass manipulated through the immediacy of the glass-blowing process.
What I like,” she says, “is when people look at my work and go, “How did you do that?” And, indeed, it’s impossible not to wonder. In fact, it took a lot of experimentation for Cutler to develop and refine her use of the waterjet process. “After you get to know it,” she says, there’s a kind of intimacy. Machines aren’t scary objects. Technology is a tool that enables.”
“It’s all about control,” she mocks when presenting her work to an audience. But she isn’t joking when she says, “You have to stand tough with it or glass will eat you up.” Cutler, who was recently appointed Lecturer at the Welsh School of Architectural Glass, Swansea Metropolitan University, Swansea Wales has a destination firmly in mind when she cuts sheets of glass with the waterjet and then slumps them on a formed steel sheet in a kiln. The result is graceful but mechanical. Fingertips consists of layered planes or precise interlocking positive and negative pink-tipped shapes encircling a wheel of pale turquoise. It could almost be a geometrically perfected diagram of a splashing water droplet.
Something we feel about glass is denied by these fragile forms. They are too thin and too precise. At the same time, something we know about glass is confirmed by Cutler’s isolated icy pastel strata, evanescent as snowflakes. Perhaps it is glass’s provisional, shatterable character.
Cutler’s work is subtly subversive, defiant of compartmentalization. On the one hand, she is conscious that artists who become identified as medium specific are often regarded as lower in the art-world pecking order. On the other hand, she herself is interested in many mediums and processes and in collaboration, as she has recently done with an public sculpture, an Albert Road Portsmouth, 2008 collaboration with Cate Watkinson. Typically she approaches the process of completing a public work, famously tricky in dealing with personalities, technical requirements, and unexpected stumbling blocks, as another invigorating challenge, a call to do more.
Cutler says, “Glass is the kind of medium that says. ‘You can’t do this.’ We always get boundaries in life, but we should question them.”