NvB: David over the past decade you have explored a variety of materials and techniques, and have collaborated with glass-makers first in Cairo and more recently Murano to fabricate a series of glass sculptures. Where did your interest in glass as a medium originate?
DM: If I trace it back, I think my interest in glass actually began with an interest in magnification, in lenses. For a while I was obsessed with SEM (scanning electron microscope) images - those black and white high definition images of insects, and pollen grains, and other subjects. In hindsight, I think I was excited by the notion of augmentation, of lenses allowing us to 'see' what was invisible to the naked eye, and to find extraordinary (sometimes terrifying) structures there. To me, that seemed to resonate with the works I was making at the time, which were paintings that resembled textiles at different levels of zoom. (X Series works)
Those paintings, which have an organic 'beaded line' motif, ended up being the basis of the work in Murano: the beaded-line was made physical, and, as they were made in solid glass, the notion of magnification was made real. They literally became lenses.
NvB: Do you think there are similarities in the properties in the sheet glass you are employing for this latest series?
DM: The sheet glass I use is also handmade, or I should say, 'mouth-blown', and retains traces and marks of its making: bubbles and 'seeds', swirls and more or less tinted areas, as well as varying in thickness over the sheet. Revealed in light, all of these characteristics subtly modify and complicate the 'image' that's projected. There is also a quality that seems 'liquid' - as if it retains something of its former state.
NvB: I can tell you are really enjoying the process and learning about this unique material. The other key element in these works is the lead lines you use, both as a means to mount the glass but equally to create a drawing. How did you decide on the forms that make up these ‘drawings’?
DM: They are, in one sense, very simple black line drawings. The lead is called 'came', and has a satisfyingly bold, marker-pen thickness to it, very graphic. It lent itself to these essential forms that could be rendered or hinted at with only a few lines. The first few pieces were made with white semi-opaque glass, so the sense of drawing was particularly direct, and the first image was the 'tent'. It seemed well suited, with the ropes tethering it to the edges of the frame, slightly abstract, but very readable.
Stained glass has been used in windows for more than 1000 years, so it was also important to find a way to accept and play with the 'tropes' of the discipline: symbolism, repetition of certain motifs like the 'sunburst', its inescapable 'window-ness'...The presentation of the work in hinged frames is a pretty direct acknowledgement, but it also got me thinking about the implied 'view', these images that teeter on the brink of figuration, that have a certain perspective.
NvB: You allude to the history of stained glass works, beyond the purely religious application it is interesting to note that Contemporary artists such as Gerhard Richter and Imi Knoebel have explored the medium too, as you said, you embraced figuration in these pieces, how does this relate to your practice in general?
DM: I mentioned teetering on the brink of figuration, well, I think that's perhaps a fair summary of my practice in general! Personally I think the work is rooted in the real world, and I take inspiration from experiences or objects that I hope are familiar, even generic on some level. I'm thinking of the connections that the work has with textiles, or with architecture... But on the other hand, I have resisted direct representation in my work in favour of more oblique references, by conjuring likenesses or illusions, or by simplifying or changing the scale.
Perhaps with this body of work I have relaxed the resistance a bit, and there is a very simple vocabulary of images which could be considered figurative: tents, tiles, tracks, threads and ribbons... But I think these could be identified as motifs of my wider practice. I’ve been wondering if a tendency towards these kinds of images comes naturally - like handwriting.
The most figurative thing about this group of works is probably the mode of presentation - that they allow themselves to be read formally as 'windows'. With the leaded ‘image’ - which is only one element in the work - I was mostly looking for simplicity, knowing that it would be complicated through interaction, through ‘opening’.
NvB: You talk about a work of art as a window or perhaps a gateway to another place. Indeed these works allow the viewer to experience the works on multiple planes, the foreground, the semi-transparent or translucent layer and the area beyond. Indeed you invite the viewer to interact with the work, an entirely new aspect in your practice. How comfortable are you with the viewer choreographing or editing the experience of these works?
These works need light, they crave it, and I’m interested in how changing the lighting conditions of a room reveals something of the materials. I want the work to make the most of its situation, to bask in the available light of a given space. There's no fixed or ideal condition, or rather, the ideal conditions are dynamic, so alteration and adjustment are to be encouraged.
I hoped I might also get away from the sense of a 'front' and 'back', that one view isn't prioritised. It's perhaps obvious, but there is also a Design element which implies a certain versatility: something visibly hinged on a wall is a kind of invitation, the potential for movement is clear and reasonable. So these works were developed with a user in mind, not simply a viewer. I liked the thought that ultimately the work might find its way into people’s domestic interiors, and have an interaction with architectural space, to the proximity of 'real' doors and windows...
NvB: It is great to hear that you intentionally invite us to interact, to encourage this process through design. I wonder if a similar consideration informed your choice of the portrait format?
DM: That's interesting because I enjoyed that the images themselves are presented in a sort of 'three-quarter' view, which is connected to classic portraiture… but I’m not sure there’s too much more than that. Certainly, the scale and the orientation are aiming for a kind of archetype, again it relates to the essential forms we were talking about earlier.
I haven't quite figured out why, but there's also something satisfying about the fixed three-quarter view of the image coupled with the hinged viewing angle created by the frame; it's another little slip between image and reality.
NvB: You seem to have clearly defined the context within which you developed the works for this exhibition, the process has undoubtedly revealed a number of surprises, can you tell me/us more about some of the challenges and discoveries you made along the way?
DM: The stained glass work does constitute something of a change in direction, and it's been useful to pay attention to how new approaches find their way into the work - which impulses get followed up, what ideas materialise. I've worked with the sheet glass for exactly a year now, and I feel like I have committed to it. The material is endlessly surprising, in part because I am relatively new to it, and still in the exploratory phase. Until fairly recently, if something wasn't working after a few days in the studio I would just ditch it and move on, but I think I'm a bit more patient now before judging the relative merits of new work.
There's an unfamiliar dialogue playing out with glass, in that the material is inherently itself already; the job I do is really only to present it - to make selections, cut it to size, judiciously place the parts.
Glass also presents unique challenges with colour; some sheets appear to have nothing, no life, and then all of a sudden the sun hits them... So far I've stuck to single colour images, though I'm beginning to work on some two- and three-colour pieces at the moment. In my mind that opens a floodgate of connections to the whole history of stained-glass that monochrome somehow manages to sidestep, but for better or worse I think I need to test the work against that.
NvB: But what about the process itself?
DM: There are a hundred things to say about the process, about material discoveries, but perhaps they're of limited interest to anyone else. Two points are worth making though, as they surprised me: there's no place for hesitancy, not in the glass-cutting or the lead work. It demands clean decisive gestures, a light touch, and as little handling as possible. I have also found that certain colour tints behave differently to others, some seem 'softer' and more malleable than others, some seem to have a directional grain, like wood. This must have something to do with the various oxides that make the colours, but I'm still learning about that.
Above all, there is a simple pleasure in working with materials that are sun-seeking, where for once light is welcomed as an enhancing force. The usual lingering anxiety is that my paints aren't light-fast enough, or the glass isn't the highest museum grade, or we shouldn't hang this piece by the window over there in direct sunlight...It's so good to embrace direct sunlight for once, it's a relief.