FIRE is a vast and vivid symbol in the storyline of human history. The Stone Age discovery of fire ignited our innovative spirit, lit our journey as a technological species and fueled our more destructive tendencies. Fire is transformation itself — linking distinct forms, both physical and spiritual, as it destroys one to create another.
This element is the essence of the work in the Arvada Center for the Arts and Humanities’ exhibit FIRED: Iron, Ceramics and Glass. The show is designed to infuse process into the perspective of gallery-goers with a hammered dedication that exhibits the methods responsible for the art on display. Each exhibit is fronted with presentations of process, priming the viewer to see the history of each piece, while standing before its finished form. The iron show, exhibited in the main gallery space, does so the most prominently and poignantly.
“As you enter, there is a cupola furnace (the melting device used to melt cast iron) that looks like a beautiful sculpture or work of art. Actually, it is what creates the work that you are about to see,” says Collin Parson, the gallery exhibition manager. “That’s a really important setting of the stage for the show. It’s not just about the final outcomes, it’s about the processes, what it takes to make the work you are now standing in front of. … We are trying to demonstrate that there is a lot of technique and experience that goes into working with fire and creating these pieces.”
The central positioning of the cupola in the foyer of the iron gallery conjures visions of iron’s industrial past. A material commonly associated with its use in the infrastructure of the built world and commercial production, iron is the fiery face of blue collar work that our nation was built on: dirty, dangerous and covered in soot.
Over time, the iron industry evolved due to the mechanization of process. In the name of good business and increased efficiency, the human element is diminishing as fire is increasingly channeled through electric wires. Iron, once at the core of a physical and industrial society, is now part of automated manufacturing. There is a bit of sadness in this realization, as one can’t help but wonder what is lost in sacrificing the connection to human hands.
Once inside the gallery, the iron art seems hyper-aware of its moment-in-time. Although the artwork in the show is diverse, it is all situated between the industrial and the mechanized, raising questions of what it means to be a maker in a post-industrial society. Central to this query is the evolution of fire through the ages. But the iron works sit in stark contrast to the process that created them, appearing cold, dense and grave.
Denver-based artist Phillip Mann addresses evolving notions of human utility in both of his two pieces in the show: “Iron Tool” and “The 88.” Both present tools that would be on display at a natural history museum, except that they are devoid of context. Without knowing where they come from or what they are for, the viewer must infer the utility of the tools, without the advantage of tactile experimentation.
Using only the eyes, “The 88” appears reminiscent of a chisel, hoe or pick-axe. But it also looks heavier, too heavy to be useful. Grounded by its 90-pound, black, cast iron base, the object seems permanent and sedentary. In defiance of that weight, rises a handcarved wooden handle, sweeping elegantly upwards as if it was meant to connect the dense object to soft and nimble human hands. The designs, although built in the human dimension, would require Herculean strength to wield.
“Hand tools are inherently connected with the human body,” Mann says. “In my research in studying traditional hand tools I realized that if the tool balances well and fits comfortably in your hand, then it will have the aesthetic that I am after. I want a little bit of disconnect between my narrative and reality, but just a little bit — the aes-thetic that has been refined by use. They are not meant to be actual or recognizable tools, but I think you can come close enough that someone could look at it and tell that it is a handle meant for picking up the tool. Other than that, it is a mystery.”
Born out of his appreciation for the tools that he used as a furniture maker, Mann’s creations aren’t meant to be used, nor can they be. As his own processes are evolving to favor computer modeling over handiwork, he is beginning to realize the repercussions of removing hands from the process. Mann’s unusable tools show the absurdity of technology that forgets the context of its user.
In a ceramics show with the theme of fire, the curatorial decision to feature only slip cast, versus other ceramic methods, might seem like an odd choice. In the grand scheme of the artistic genre, slip casting is a comparatively tempered approach to fire, usually employing low-fire clays that can often be heated in small electric kilns. The process itself is rather mechanical — plaster molds are constructed off of an original form and replicas are created by pouring liquid clay, setting the form inside, removing the exoskeleton, bisquing, glazing and then firing to bring it to completion. This process echoes those of industrial fabrication and offers similarly predictable and controlled results.
“Slip casting is meant for mass production,” says Kristen Bueb, gallery coordinator for the Arvada Center for the Arts. “However, artists today have figured out a way to make that work for them, embracing mass production, but only to a certain extent. In a way, in the literal definition of the word, they are using the technology of fire to make their art. It’s become this new popular thing in ceramics and the curator was eager to tap into that.”
Advantages of the technique are its cautious regard for limited environmental and fiscal resources — adding a potentially political aspect to artistic process. Usually the art itself is what is politically compelling, not the process that creates it. When exhibiting artist David Bogus talks about his work, it becomes obvious that the slip cast aesthetic is both a result of the taming of fire over time and also a viable vision for the future of art that is less about controlling nature and more about taming ourselves.
“I am using as little energy as possible to make my work,” Bogus says. “I like to be very minimal with my footprint, which is not a very popular opinion in the ceramic world. Nor is my other motivation for working with slip cast, low-fire techniques: because it is cheap and cost effective. I teach right now on the Mexican border, and I want to use a process that isn’t expensive so that my low income students can do it within their means. There is a kind of accessibility in my process that is very important to me.”
Trained as a wood-fired potter, Bogus also reminisces about the physical and spiritual qualities of those more fiery and traditional ceramic methods. In wood-fire processes, artists don’t get to control the way their art comes out — fire does. Instead, they learn how to have persuasion over the whims of fire by creating areas for oxidation and reduction inside of kilns that are literally fueled by tons of wood. The process is hot and exhaustive as artists continually feed the kiln for 48 hours to keep the temperature hot and steady enough to melt the glassy glazes on the pieces inside. In the context of a changing climate, Bogus is one of many artists interested in producing work that’s not only beautifully designed and produced but also environmentally and socially friendly.
Bogus’ three pieces in the show each rely on the replicative quality of slip cast works to create installations that comment on the social characteristics of mass production and consumption. In his installation “Optimist Luggage,” Bogus presents what he calls a “Bogus brand” — a statement on the culture of consumerism and a critique on the greed that drives it. The four suitcases in the installation are life-sized replications, identical in form with only slight variations in the gaudy colors stamped and stenciled all over the pieces. Shiny and bright, the material almost translates like plastic, a significant confusion when considered in the theme of clay’s relationship with fire.
One is rarely more aware of their destructive nature than when walking around a gallery full of glass art — it is easy to imagine breaking a piece with little more than a forceful exhale. The fragility of glass comes from its hardness — a characteristic that causes it to shatter under pressure. But it is this same durability, bestowed by its rigid molecular structure, that gives glass its sense of movement and life.
There are many ways to work with glass and draw or subtract from the qualities of the medium. The works in the show come from several different processes including glass blowing, lampworking, slabbing and kiln firing. The most famous works in the show, on loan from museums, are all pieces made in glass furnaces by the likes of Dale Chihuly, Richard Royal and Lino Tagliapietra. If you have never seen the work of six sweaty artists around a furnace as they form molten glass, you can watch the video at the front of the exhibition, which brings that fiery process into the gallery.
Despite the wide array of techniques employed in the show, it is cohesive in its presentation. The works are colorful and shiny with an air of delicacy that bestows a luminous quality on the room. Until you get to the work of Carmen Vetter, that is.
Hanging on the wall toward the back of the gallery is “Sublunary” — four tiles of kiln-formed glass in earthy shades of brown, forming what looks like an aerial view of a moonscape or a microbial magnification. Her work confuses the line between the macro and the micro with a detached curiosity on what the very big and the very small share in common.
In order to do so, Vetter masterfully freezes time, capturing a moment of erosion in a material often defined by its permanence. Vetter relies on the physical qualities of glass to preserve the temporal, but also pushes against the medium’s core characteristics as she describes her process more like painting with glass and fire.
“Over time I have learned how to manipulate the qualities of glass — I don’t want it to get shiny, I don’t want it to look like glass. I want it to stick to itself and become a solid thing that captures the essential qualities of erosion,” Vetter says. “I still experience change — that metamorphosis of glass, that bit of chance, that thing that you can’t always completely control. I am giving my piece over to the flame, and it is making some decisions for me. Anyone who practices with fire starts to understand its wildness, but still it is exciting, every time I open the kiln.”
The intention of FIRED was to place process front and center, to make people aware of the intensity of the transitions fostered by artists and inherited in the artwork. While the romanticized intensity of fire is present in the show, the interpretation of the theme is more subtle. We may be tempted in by the ostentatious nature of man fighting fire, but what keeps us in the gallery is the intricacy of how fire has evolved, how it has been harnessed and controlled. FIRED is an important reminder that human history is united with and dependent on fire, and that no matter how we wield it, flame is indelibly tied to the human spirit.