Painterliness in contemporary glass art

Delivered as the Strattman lecture, Adelaide GAS Conference, 9 May 2005

At this moment, Australia plays host to an international gathering of glass artists. It would seem remiss, then, not to mention one of Australia’s most noticeable contributions to the international world of glass art. The Peter Carey novel Oscar and Lucinda used glass blowing as a key narrative element. The film, starring Kate Blanchett and Ralph Feines, presented Australian glass-blowing to the world—albeit as a historical recreation. Though historical fiction, it is a promising platform for some burning issues in contemporary glass art.

Lucinda in the glass factory

If we look at the actual content of Oscar and Lucinda, we find quite an interesting question about the business of what it is to be a glass artist. The story revolves around the acquisition of a glass factory by a young recent arrival to colonial Sydney.

For Carey, glass is where reality and fantasy intersect. Unlike the down to earth male world of glass-blowing, tied to the market for utilitarian objects, Lucinda Lepastrier dreamily engages with the fantastic world of glass. Her attention is drawn to the purely useless item—Prince Rupert’s drop. Lucinda believes that ‘glass is a thing in disguise, an actor, is not solid at all.[1] Glass is conducive to the realm of the fantastic that figures so strongly in Carey’s fiction.

Contrary to expectations, Lucinda takes a great interest in the business of how glass is made. She insists on being part of factory life. It is here that she encounters the pre-eminent senior blower, Arthur Phelps.

But Lucinda’s presence at the glassworks is not welcome. A delicate, and maybe even interfering female, is not a familiar presence. Phelps fears that she might distract the men from their labour. When Lucinda protests that she is the proprietor of the glassworks, Arthur Phelps complains, ‘I know, mum, but it be our craft, mum, you see. It be our craft.’[2] The male technical pursuit proves surprisingly vulnerable to womanly presence.

Josiah McElheny

One artist who seems to have overcome this barrier between glass and mainstream art is the American artist Josiah McElheny. McElheny has served his apprenticeship in glass-blowing and spent his time at the feet of the Venetian masters. While being beholden to the world of glass, McElheny has managed to break through into the contemporary art circuit, including the prestigious White Cube gallery in Hoxton Square, London.

Most of my reference to McElheny comes from the substantial catalogue to a retrospective at Centro Galego de Arte Contemporánea, Santiago de Compostella.[3] The exhibition contains a formidable range of work. It expresses not only technical excellence but also conceptual sophistication..

In the interview that has been published in the catalogue, McElheny does not disavow the craft basis of his work: ‘The subject matter of my work assumes that the anonymous, artisanal, industrial activity of specific glass-factory cultures could be viewed as a complex, creative and meaning-generating activity.’[4] This seems an honest avowal of skill by contrast with the celebration of ‘cleverness’ by conceptual artists like Jeff Koons.

We can see here a new interest in skill that is emerging in the contemporary visual art scene. While celebrating conceptual play, it could be argued that visual art has always had a place for an unquestioned point of certainty. In recent times, this has been often what is considered indigenous, including customary forms of knowledge. We can see in McElheny’s career the possibilities that skill itself could become a quasi-sacred element in the visual art arena.

Here McElheny promises to take craft to a new level. There have been a few craftspersons in the visual art world. In many cases, they fail to pave the way for others of their medium. The Turner Prize winner Grayson Perry uses his status as a potter as evidence of his idiosyncrasy. Would McElheny be any different?

Despite an extraordinary corpus of work, blessed by both skill and intellect, McElheny misses the chance to take craft seriously in its own terms. We can begin with cover of the catalogue. Rather than a glass work, it depicts a nostalgic image of an elegant woman walking through the factory. The text within identifies her as Ginette Gagneous, the wife of the master glass-blower Venini. According to the story, the Dior outfits worn by the boss’s wife became an object of fascination for the blowers and led to new designs in glass, which McElheny reproduces in his exhibition.

Maureen Williams

At this point, it is possible to select any number of Australian female glass artists, many of whom are forging a new language for landscape in glass. I chose the Victorian artist Maureen Williams as someone whose work is the closest to a traditional painting practice.

In a series of images over the past ten years, we can see a steady journey in glass through landscape. Beginning in 1996 with the Transition Series, Williams creates a cylindrical white canvas on which she paints vertical rock-like shapes. There is relatively little sign of landscape, though the forms are clearly drawn from nature. The accompanying empty shapes lend the work a formalist quality that emphasizes their status as drawings.

It is tempting to ascribe a linear development to Williams work. Certainly there seems to be a development from literal representation of landscape to the thing itself with the rock-like forms. But the disappearance and re-appearance of the figure in her landscapes seems like a continual play that she engages in. This oscillation highlights the fragility of self in land, particularly a land as archaic as Australia.

Painterliness is an interesting quality to associate with glass. The allusion to the brush seems contrary to the essence of hot glass, being a medium that resists the organic. Painterliness suggests an opacity that is the opposite of the glowing transparency of glass.

The brush is something we associate closely with the hand of the individual artist. It is the instrument that elects the painter into the fine arts, alongside the pen of the writer and the baton of the conductor. Henry James could thus write about ‘his brother of the brush.’

The material arts are more haptic in nature, involving the body as a whole. Blowing glass, throwing ceramic vessels, weaving a tapestry or hammering out a ring—these activities require the weight of the body to be successful.

In the case of Maureen Williams, painterliness draws our attention to the differences between her work and painting. Rather than render the world on a flat linear plane, she adopts a cylindrical format. Williams claims that her choice is medium is more from a deficit on her part. She says:

I find it hard to paint two-dimensionally because I don’t know what to do with the edges. I’m used to going around. When I hit the edge, I don’t know how to deal with it.

While this might explain the choice to work on a circular medium, the choice of glass rather than ceramics or metal still remains a mystery.

To understand more fully what is happening in Williams’ work, we need to consider the basic elements of the pictorial frame. In the case of painting, the frame gives its content a clear sense of beginning and end. Beginning and end are the basics elements of any narrative structure. It is what Frank Kermode calls ‘that concordance of beginning, middle, and end which is the essence of our explanatory fictions’

As a framed structure, painting is very much a window onto the world, one which is contained by our own needs. This window has metamorphosed into today’s screen, which with the growing popularity of plasma technology is increasingly replacing the window that once looked out on our now non-existent gardens.

Williams’ journey as an artist harkens back to the romantic quests of painters to capture the essence of their world. By taking this journey into the radiant three-dimensional world of glass, she grants this quest a relevance that is otherwise missing. Glass is the future of painting.


This lecture is dedicated to the memory of Australian artist Neil Roberts. The full version is available online at

[1] Peter Carey Oscar and Lucinda St. Lucia: University of Queensland Press,

1988, p. 135

[2] Peter Carey Oscar and Lucinda St. Lucia: University of Queensland Press,

1988, p. 329

[3] Josiah McElheny Centro Galego de Arte Contemporánea; 18 April –

17 June 2002

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