March 12, 2007
A Breath of Fresh Art
Graham Caldwell, Blowing Hot and Cool
Graham Caldwell is one of the bravest young artists in Washington. Not because he regularly tosses around 2,000-degree glass. Or because, on your average summer day, his Hyattsville studio is hotter than Death Valley. And not because he works in a medium that won't survive a single careless moment. (When one piece chips even before it gets to Caldwell's current show, his first solo at the prestigious G Fine Art on 14th Street, he shrugs and insists that's part of what his glass art is about: "I like the idea of wear and tear -- that the material not only stretches and congeals but also breaks.")
No, Caldwell's courage comes from his decision to work with a material so easily, unavoidably, magically pretty that it can be hard to push it much past prettiness.
The challenge becomes clear from watching Caldwell work in the glass workshop he helped found in Prince George's County. It's an absurdly cold February day, but you enter through a garage door left open to cool things down inside. The place is a mess of old-school iron tools, half-finished vases, glass dust and broken shards. There's the obligatory grime-covered boombox. Caldwell, normally a trendy dresser -- a shy smile, slight build and artfully tousled hair give him teen-idol looks -- is in old khakis and a scruffy shirt.
But the day's take-home impression is of unadulterated splendor.
Caldwell pokes a blowpipe of dull steel into a furnace, then pulls it out with a gob of orange lava on its end. He puffs a quick breath into his pipe, pulls it out of his mouth and caps it with a finger. That bit of extra pressure in the tube is enough to make the lump of molten glass begin to swell, as though something's being born inside. Then Caldwell keeps working on this artistic nucleus, depending on the final shape he wants. He blows it into a thinner globe or spins it at arm's length like a cricket bowler winding up, so that it's pulled out to the length of his forearm. (Caldwell recalls how, in art school days, he once inadvertently spun a molten spear of glass across the workshop. Luckily, no other students were there to be on the receiving end of his effort.) He stretches the hot glass with pincers, rolls it into symmetry on a steel slab, lets gravity pull it into a more interesting shape again. If Caldwell's work-in-progress gets too cool, it may spend a few seconds in the blinding furnace called a "glory hole." Or Caldwell may shoot it a deafening blast from an old-fashioned blowtorch.
"I really have learned to tolerate burns," says Caldwell, either with bravado or a true nonchalance that is even more impressive. "Glass doesn't generally burn you that bad. It kinds of slides off. But hot metal sticks."
Caldwell's stoicism fades when it comes to the artistic risks he runs working with glass. He witnesses his visitor's slack-jawed fascination with his process and materials -- and points out that all the same pleasures would be there if he were making glass giraffes, like some showman in a Venice tourist trap. He describes the act of blowing glass as an "athletic pursuit of mastery over material" -- and cites balloon knotting as a likely parallel.
The qualities of the material itself -- the immediate appeal of its transparency, gloss and color, of its protean versatility, of its ancient craft traditions and the hard-won skills it takes to master them -- make glass that much harder to transform into a serious, investigative art form for contemporary times. The beauty and "wonderment" of glass, says Caldwell, can be "the sugar in the coffee," tempting people to approach your work. It can also be what keeps them from going any deeper. "Watching a molten blob become a perfect rectangle is pretty great," he says. "That's the biggest problem. Even the molten blob is pretty great."
It's what led him where he is today, at age 33.
Caldwell was raised in a two-lawyer household on Capitol Hill and schooled at Georgetown Day. He moved to New York in 1992 to attend college at the New School. Everything was going according to your standard, middle-class plan until he walked by Urban Glass, a well-known glass-blowing studio that was near his home in Brooklyn. (He and his wife, Melissa Farris, a graphic designer for National Geographic, are hoping to move back there any month now.) One look into Urban Glass, and Caldwell got bitten by the bug -- the Venetian flu, the Corning crud, the Bohemian complaint. After a few hobbyist classes there he realized he wanted more, he transferred to the famous Rhode Island School of Design, where by 1998 he came away with a degree in studio art, with a specialty in glass. Traditional fine glass-blowing, Caldwell says, "has a cracklike allure to anyone who's learning this stuff." He's still trying to kick the habit.
Caldwell's work at G Fine Art may show the first few of his 12 steps.
Instead of making single objects of virtue, meant for slow, luxuriant contemplation, Caldwell produces installations made of many separate, similar parts, often attached to a wall with crude metal mounts. It's not the crafting of one piece of glass that matters, or fussy detailing of any kind, but the overall effect of the agglomeration. One untitled work is a cluster of 36 long-necked mirrored blobs protruding from the wall. (Imagine the shape that balloons take on when they're half filled with water; now imagine them flash-frozen and sticking sideways into space. Glass, says Caldwell, "is a slowed-down, meaty version of water.") The crucial thing about this installation isn't the particular shape Caldwell has chosen to repeat, or the way it's blown and mirrored -- any decent glass worker could make such objects -- but how they reflect off each other and mirror the space and the other artworks in the gallery as well as the viewer looking at them. It's about "the intelligibility of reflections," Caldwell says. Staring into this piece, you see yourself distorted 36 ways, with each face about to be engulfed in a stampede of silvered slugs reflected alongside it.
That's the kind of threat that Caldwell's happy to achieve, if only to counteract the ever-present sweetness of his medium. Some of his new wall works are made of many curving wands or tusks of clear glass lined with white. A single one of them might recall the fine leaf from a tropical frond. Together, however, they make a circle pointing inward, like the teeth of some ill-tempered shark in need of orthodontics. Seeing a successful work of art, Caldwell feels, should be like "discovering a new animal," and that might involve fear as well as pleasure.
But for all his efforts, the threat in Caldwell's art may remain an overlay of prettiness, not a true antidote to it. The shiny, splendid glass may win out, after all. Caldwell has tried to escape glass altogether. His last commercial show in Washington had one room-engulfing installation that was all metal and rubber. A recent public art commission for Arlington County was made of concrete. But without his glass, Caldwell risks becoming just another sculptor conceiving interesting forms.
Caldwell has thought about these issues long and hard. "The realm of art is the realm of the unexpected and unknown," he says, and that's clearly where he wants to work. (He avoids showing in exhibitions that are only about glass or artisanal skill.) "The realm of craft is the realm of the known and the historical," he goes on -- he throws in adjectives such as "anemic" and "myopic" -- but he can't completely leave it behind. His central interest is in "bringing the well-made object into the world of sculpture."
Caldwell's most ambitious piece at G Fine Art shows him working toward that synthesis, or at least taking a first shot at it. One wall in the gallery is covered with nearly 40 circular mirrors, attached to hinged brackets that let each one point in all directions. There's everything from huge convex surveillance mirrors, meant for looking around a corner, to purse-size convex ones for studying eyebrows. The effect is to open up the gallery space, as though looked at wide-angle through a housefly's compound eye. The piece, which is fundamentally about seeing, reiterates the looking that all galleries are designed to encourage, and becomes an almost comic parody of it.
But for all its frosty, conceptual foundations and feel, the installation doesn't leave hot glass behind. Most of its mirrors, machine-made to serve a daily use, talk about the real, normal, uncrafty presence of glass in our modern world: "Industrial design is fruitful to sculpture, more than craft is," Caldwell says. But then, tucked high among the others, is a single mirror, a few inches across, that stands out as more distorting, a little browner, rather less useful than the rest. It's been hand-blown by Caldwell, as almost a kind of hidden punch line to the piece and to his practice.
It doesn't hit the solar plexus, yet. Caldwell, for all his thoughtfulness, hasn't found a way out of the craft/art conundrum. But he's got the guts to keep trying.