Emma Woffenden belongs to a new generation of makers who have gone along way beyond the old’art/craft divide ‘. She works in glass , which, in Britain at least, has remained primarily a craft-and-design orientated material. But the objects she makes would be categorized by most people as sculpture.
We meet in her studio in an industrial building near Waterloo. After glancing at the work on show we move quickly to a bare, disused-looking room next door. Clear spring light pours through the high windows. She is slim, wearing a heavy sweater. She constantly crosses her arms across her chest, looks down, complains about the cold. Perhaps glassmakers, like salamanders, need to be near a furnace.
‘How did you get into glass/’ I ask, the immediately obvious question. ‘Through ceramics,’ she says ‘It was quite arbitrary.’ After studies in the 80’s at West Surrey College of Art and Design, she went on an exchange programme to Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia. Tyler is an important focus for the American craft world, and the alma mater of such major figures in American craft as the great metalsmith Albert Paley.
By going there sshe came into contact with the very active, but also rather isolated world of glass sculpture in the US. American sculptors in glass attract passionate aficionados – collectors who have to posess at least one example of work by every leading artist in the field. With such rare exceptions as the cast-glass sculptor Howard Ben Tre, however, they also remain completely cut off from the rest of the American art world. Woffenden immediately recognized that this was a problem.
At the same period, before the fall of Communism, she visited Czechoslovakia, an historical focus for the European glass industry, and saw what artists in glass were doing there. ‘What they did was “serious”,’ she says , giving a slight emphasis to the word, and frowning even more intently at the floor, ‘but those objects had nothing to do with what I was thinking about.’
From 1989 to 1991 she was a member of The Glass Studio, a gallery and studio enterprise with four people. What this seems to have taught her – she regards herself as a slow developer – was that she didn’t want to be a craft glassmaker of the usual kind. In 1991 shere-entered the education system asa mature student, to do an MA course in ceramics and glass at the Royal College of Art, London. ‘I thought, “I’ve got some language – now’s the time to go back and put it all together.”’
I asked if she didn’t chafe a little at the return to discipline this entailed. ‘Not a bit. I learned a lot about techniques which were relatively new to me, like model-making. Basicly I loved being able to use all the facilities they had there.’ She also began to look beyond the world of craft. One project came to her in 1993 through the Museum of Mankind, which asked her, as it has a number of other artists, to create a showcase for them. Looking for material in the Museum’s vast collection, she found she was most attracted by the powerful simplicity of early New Guinea stone sculpture. What attracted her about these pieces? ‘Just the gestures in them,’ she says. At this moment, in the early 90s, she was also interested in modern dance, and used to attend performances quite frequently.
Once again it was the idea of gesture which interested her. It is a concept which has become central to what she does. ‘I want,’ she says, ‘to take glass forms, and find human references in them.’ When asked to name a contemporary sculptor who has influenced her in this, she immediately cites the work of Louise Bourgeois: ‘It’s the first sculpture I really felt connected with.’
What attracts her to Bourgeois’s sculpture? The answer seems to be its characteristic combination of ambiguity and sly sexual reference. ‘I don’t want you to be able to say this is totally male, or this is totally female. If a form has what seems to you to be a phallic quality, I want you to know the work is about maleness in myself.’ Later, to illustrate the point, she shows me some extraordinary phallic shapes in clear glass. Each is penetrated by a hollow in the form of a new-born baby’s arm: You can tell it really is new-born by the slackness of the skin.’
These pieces demonstrate one of the things she has in common with Bourgeois, apart from an interest in certain basic themes to do with sexuality. This is her lack of interest in imposing stylistic or technical norms. Her pieces are every possible technique – slumped, moulded, blown, cast – without making any one of them primary. The technique always arises out of what the piece itself has to say. Thatis, she is fascinated by the problem of mastering the material, being in charge of it so to speak, but not at all bothered by the fact that the uninstructed spectator might wonder if they were all by the same hand. This tendency may be accentuated by something she rather wryly notes herself – her current isolation from what is going on elsewhere in the field: ‘I’m not teaching , so I don’t have a lot of contact.’
Finally, how does she envisage these strange, haunting, rather unnerving objects being shown? Not pompously on plinths, if she can avoid it. ‘Even when they are being exhibited in a gallery, I’d like to have them in a context which resembles what you might find in somebody’s home. In certain instances, in fact, the piece is meant to look as if it has been discarded. Theres one recent piece of mine which `I think would probably look best on the top of a wardrobe – pushed well back.’
In fact, wherever this piece was placed, it would probably induce slightly unsettling dreams in its owner.