Kirstie Rea the land: a 20 year survey. Canberra Museum + Gallery. Until August 20, 2017.
Kirstie Rea has generated a lot of attention among people who are interested in contemporary glass. This survey exhibition covering the period from 1996 to 2016 has been curated by Mark Bayly for Canberra Museum + Gallery and has been eagerly awaited. Rarely do artists who have an object-based practice have their work shown in such depth in major institutions. Why this is the case I don't understand as it is among these artists that some of the most exciting and relevant contemporary art is being made.
Rea grew up in suburban Canberra. In 1982 she was one of the first students at what was then known as the Canberra School of Art Glass Workshop when Klaus Moje and Neil Roberts were the only staff. After graduating, she gained experience in glass studios in Australia and overseas, as many glass artists tend to do. Rea has garnered an international reputation and has had many prestigious Australian and international teaching and administrative appointments. From 1987 to 2003, Rea was a staff member at the ANU School of Art Glass Workshop and in 2006 went on to become the creative director of the Canberra Glassworks. She left in 2008 to follow a more freelance professional arts practice and to concentrate on her own studio work. She now has a studio in Pialligo.
Rea's interest in the land (its natural beauty but also its cultivation) is expressed in the four thematic sections of the exhibition – the Land, Harvest, Furrow and Air. This is helpful in understanding the artist's inspiration and themes but is not prescriptive as, with all artists, ideas are fluid and may re-emerge in different forms at a later stages in their creative life.
Rea's work has a strong sculptural profile. It is not so much about the materiality of glass, its unique properties or its historical traditions but about how glass can be an element in a much larger and complex concept. This is not to say that Rea does not exploit the elements of glass – its luminosity, colour and tensile strength but it seems as if Rea is in command of it as a material to be bent to her creative will. Early work in the exhibition such as the free-standing cast glass house forms of 1998 does not seem to have been repeated and, as in Landscape with Shed 1999, has been replaced by thin layers of glass shards and the flowing draped forms that appear much later. Only in a work such as Balancing the blades 2004 and Winter Gate 2005 do these heavier glass forms re-appear.
The three free-standing bow shaped glass forms (the works called Banded 2000, Myth or memory 2001 and Terraqueous 2001) have a perceived propensity to spring back into another existence. They seem to foreshadow Rea's delight in the ambiguity of glass as a seemingly pliable material when in fact as a final product it is hard and unyielding. Ambiguity is played out in the later drapery works seen in the Air section. Among my favourite works are where the transformation of glass from a liquid to a solid form is acclaimed. This is exemplified in a major work – The comfortable terrain of distance 2016. Against a painted backdrop. three wisps of disembodied glass drapery are caught as if in mid-flight. From such small fragments a more complex scenario can be played out involving multiple historical antecedents or just everyday occurrences. The artist leaves it up to us.
Other works have more structural, optical complexity. An outstanding example of this is called The Pines 2004. Initially the green panels suggest the sentinel-like appearance of a stand of trees. Yet the work has a deeper complexity as the edges of the glass panels shimmer with greenness. If you look at this work at a slight angle you will also notice that the panels seem to project out from the wall as a row of trees does when we view it from different standpoints.
Rea uses the walls and floor of the gallery not just as background for her work but as an active element in it. Works such as Balancing the Blades 2004 spring from the wall to catch the light that gives them power and energy. In her latest work, Rea has been using found agricultural objects such as racks and hoes – the glass cut into strips flows from their prongs creating glass furrows linking these objects to the movement or furrows they make in the soil. These found objects are also used to suggest a more aggressive potential for movement as in the "flowering" of rakes (Reap 2013) that seem about to spin off the gallery wall and the work Channel 11 2013 where the woven glass strips "flow" between the two rakes in a rhythmic interplay of line and light.
This survey exhibition beautifully presented by Canberra Museum + Gallery includes recent work from 2016 that shows Rea at the height of her creative powers. It confirms the importance of the artist and her distinctive contribution to the development of glass art and its relevance in the contemporary visual art dialogue.