Cast glass by Jim Dennison and Leanne Williams.
At Aratoi until 17 March 2013

Crystal Chain Gang - The decanters as originally displayed in the Sarjeant Gallery in Wanganui

The decanters as originally displayed in the Sarjeant Gallery in Wanganui

‘Fancy Fools Flight’ is Martinborough glass artists Jim Dennison and Leanne Williams touring exhibition.  They call themselves and their workshop / studio ‘The Crystal Chain Gang’.  The exhibition has been shown in Auckland at Objectspace and Piece Gallery, at the Sarjeant Gallery Wanganui, at Pataka in Porirua, in Nelson at the Suter and now at Aratoi.  The Sarjeant Gallery’s Greg Donson curated the exhibition.

The exposure this exhibition has received indicates strong national support for the work of these Wairarapa artists.  The curator of the show claims that “the pair have pushed the boundaries of the medium, using cast glass to create innovative work that traverses the territories of art, craft, design and industry”.

The work certainly combines methods from both craft and industry. The pair’s production is impressive and assured.  Their methods of construction – combining multiple small pieces of glass over some sort of frame be it a wall / table / or metal structure – allows them to extend the scale of their work to occupy sometimes quite large spaces.  Their ability to produce hundreds of units allows them to make such huge and impressive chandeliers as the privately commissioned work ‘Fist Full of Feathers’ (not part of this exhibition). The exhibited ‘Auspice’ (2011) uses the repeated motif of over 50 small bird forms in various colours (10 of which have non-bird heads) to cover the back wall of the gallery.

I have a problem with the inclusion of ‘art and design’ in the curator’s claim, and with the assertion that the studio pushes the boundaries of the medium.  While aggregation of small units suits chandeliers which seem to be an important part of their production, the use of small parrots to form a skull backed by a mirror in ’Polly’ (2006) doesn’t make any particular sense or make a coherent statement.

Similarly, the titles attached to individual ‘decanters’ seem arbitrary and fail to augment each individual work except to indicate that they should be approached as humorous.  ‘Rasta’ ‘Horse’, ‘Mr Evil’, ‘Missionary Batgirl’ and ‘Planet of the Apes’ are perhaps references to popular culture but their connection to the sculptured form does not add to the experience of the work. The artists say: “the message is not in the bottle but it is the bottle itself….our intention is to stir memory and re-contextualise the bottle to try and engage the viewer in new and unexpected ways”.  This may be a commendable aim but the titles of the decanters channel engagement towards known consumable entertainment products.  It may be that in accordance with the jovial and jokey tone of their website (which is well worth a look – ) their intention is to be amusing.

A further problem with glass as a figurative sculptural medium is that a lot of detail is lost because of the transparency of the medium.  The individual figurative work is undermined and therefore fails to counterbalance the industrial modular repetition. This problem is amply demonstrated in the photographs of ‘Plunderers’ where the detail of shape is sometimes totally lost. If they want to continue with the figurative work then some consideration might be given to modulating the transparency of the glass.

In some ways the attempt to include a notion of ‘art’ in their work detracts from what they do best.  I would love to see this group take themselves totally seriously and work on an architectural scale producing for example, glass screens which could expose their beautiful support structures as a compliment to the transparency of the glass.  Their experiments with this in the work ‘Slaughtered’ can be seen on the website, and for me, have produced some of their most successful works.

Often, less is more.  I am sure that the temptation to embellish with colour and detail would be difficult to resist, but it is worth remembering that it is the engagement of the viewer that makes the art work. The artist merely presents the material that the audience makes something with.  If you give the viewer too much visual complexity they are less able to make the work their own.