Emma Woffenden manipulates the protean medium of glass to produce affecting metaphors for the human condition. Julia Pitts is blown away.
As an artist working with glass,Emma Woffenden gives us the chance to consider the human condition through this complex and visually charged medium. Connections rise and fall in the mind. Clear, symmetrical forms carry clear austre, scientific connotations; opaque,thick-cast walls introduce a weighty oppression, their seams implying confinment and permanence; interlocking, voluminous blown pieces are full of potential, or lie flaccid and dormant.
In her studio, Woffenden is surrounded by an assortment of heavy weight equipment. Indeed as we talk, the dull, mechanical clunk of the electric kiln punctuates the conversation. Plaster dust clings to the floor; pale blue Styrofoam models acting as inappropriately light weight reminders of earlier works sit among samples of techniques that may be of use for future interpretations. Woffendens sensitivities to her environment permeate her work. She describes a symbiotic relationship between the evolution of form and its particular location: pieces become part of the workshop, inhabiting lengths of the workbench or the cluttered shelves as they are considered and resolved.
This new body of work draws more literally from Woffenden’s surroundings as she looks for a means of expression less attributed to the human form. Woffenden explains, “I am moving away from carved body abstractions, from something so hands on. A few years ago I made a piece – part-coffin, part-crib – that was full of this white structure. I really liked the combination: pieces of white glass inside the block, it was very ‘bodily’ – like ripped bits of flesh or fabric. Technically it’s difficult, but I kept coming back to it.” Searching for a vehicle to carry this structure, Woffenden considered her studio weighing scales: “The form is very figurative, it has a face. It’s very monumental and carries an industrial, everyday quality; I have used it quite literally.”
The simple, block-like compostitionof the scales provides an umderstated foil for the floating, ghostly white sheets. Whereas previously we found layered meanings in the ambivalent, gestural forms, we are now drawn in by the chance positioning of an interior landscape, frozen within the conformity of a familiar object. Woffenden sees references to gravestones and to the baroque drama of a marble-clad interior of an Italian church, and both are sources of inspiration. “I am trying to make something very beautiful and about life, and yet I am aware that I want it to look like a monument to death as well,” she explains. Woffenden intends another block-like piece to be cast from a small computer monitor, the interior of which will captivate its audience with a mass of ghostly baby’s fingers randomly floating upwards, trapped in the clear, solid form.
At Woffenden’s current solo show, the remote gallery space has been transformed by importing elements of her working environment. Draped swathes of white tarpaulin sheets invade the gallery and large, clear, blown glass bells are simply strung up with thick rope in a dramatic contrast to the minimal industrial interventions of previous installations.
Making direct connections with earlier work, Woffenden addresses a recurring theme that has surfaced variously as pieces entitled Tribune and Baton. She describes the progression of the form: “It has a long history with me, starting as a cast piece; re-translated it then became a blown form, a growth-like upright object, in some cases as a head and shoulders or a phallic trophy-like object. The newest piece is much more playful, with a circular base and a round top. This will be the last one in the series.”
Unusually Woffenden uses many different glass-forming processes, picking the appropriate method for the message, but she continues to reject the glamorous, decorative qualities of glass that were prevalent in the Eighties and early Nineties, when she was a student. “I’m very uncomfortable with that side of glass, although I work to quite high finishes in some pieces.”
Woffenden does employ other materials – rubber and glass fibre, for example – but she admits to being “completely hooked on understanding glass in great detail. I want to go a long way with it.” The mentalapplication required to overcome the scientific challenges inherent in the production process is all part of the attraction for this artist.
Once stripped of its ornamental status, Woffenden exposes glass as a powerful medium. In her new works she manipulates its ability to trap internal elements, freezing them at random within the illusion of a space made solid. The essential paradox that something so solid can be so fragile works in tandem with the contradictions Woffenden confronts in her work: beginnings and endings, celebration and rreflection, a raw beauty, an alarming openness, a serenity and an overwhelming reminder of our own mortality are all there.