We’ve got a kind of either/or relationship with the stuff. Either it’s the ubiquity of, say, the common run-of-the-mill drinking glass, perhaps lying shattered in a gazillion little lethal splinters and shards on the kitchen floor at our feet, or it’s something like one of Dale Chihuly’s massive and complex sculptural blown glass installations, breathtakingly beautiful, sinuous amalgams suspended, perhaps, above our heads.
I’m indulging in a couple of stereotypes, to be sure, seeking out a couple of oppositional extremes so as to better talk about, and map out a place for, the work of Canadian glass artist Brad Copping. Copping emerged in the early 1990s from Sheridan College in Toronto, an institution that’s been one of the hotbeds of clay and glass teaching in Canada. He’s done time at the Pilchuk Glass School in Washington State, and at Haystack Mountain School of Crafts in Maine, and worked and studied with sculptor David Nash in Scotland. He now lives and works in a small rural community in eastern Ontario.
And on the continuum I marked out with aforementioned extremes, Copping’s aesthetic in many ways tends much closer towards that of the drinking glass. Much closer. Literally, in fact, for the drinking glass figures prominently in a number of his sculptural pieces.
And here, before going any further, is where it need be noted that Copping is in no way a glass purist, devoted to the aesthetic, medium-specific singularity of this remarkable stuff. His work does things using glass, and bypasses utter devotion to the expression of artistic technique (which, I hasten to add, he has plenty of). Copping’s work isn’t self-focused. It points outwards and away into the world.
So this is glass, but glass with a bit of a twist (no pun intended), rooted in the mundane but remarkably fecund realm of the utilitarian: in the drinking glass. Domestic Fuel, a piece from 2009, makes my point. Though Copping is no stranger to integrating non-glass elements into his work (wood, paper, wire, the casings for artillery shells, and even books figure in some of his sculptural works), Domestic Fuel in some ways toes a narrow aesthetic line. It’s all glass, from top to bottom. And the larger part of it is, well, comprised of glasses. A small, moulded glass house, pitched roof and all and about the size of a small doll house, comprises the base from which the work rises up, for you see, in many ways it’s all about a kind of weightlessness. The house’s chimney transitions into a tall, thin, not quite straight column of drinking glasses stacked, upside down, one onto the other. And in keeping with the conceit that this is denotative of smoke rising from the house, the glasses are blackened and filthy; dirty streaks even run down along the roof and sides of the house.
Middle of Somewhere (2007) is a wall-mounted installation that does incorporate non-glass components. But the heart of the piece is glass – in the form of (you guessed it) glasses. Along the length of metal shelf are a series of clear drinking glasses that are pierced through on either side (blown this way by Copping) to permit the intrusion of a tubular length of tightly rolled-up topographical maps that runs from one end of the work to the other, joining all the elements together.
And even earlier than that, in 2005, he created Level Conversation, another wall-mounted works made up of two (ahem) drinking glasses, each independently resting on its own small shelf, connected to one another via a long vinyl tube running out the bottom of each and sagging down towards the floor. Water fills the tubing and the glasses and it is, of course, an aesthetically delightful iteration of a simple water level.
All this isn’t, obviously, to suggest or imply that Copping hasn’t got the chops. Boy does he. The water glass may be fundamental to his work, but he’s more than amply capable of blowing exquisite glass for non-installational purposes that surmounts the blandly utile. When the G8 Summit of world leaders was held in Canada in 2010, Copping created Forest Glass, a beautiful series of blown water glasses used by the meeting leaders. Back in 2001, he created water glasses and goblets for the Canadian Embassy in Japan. And he’s even created unique wine bottles for a prestigious Canadian winery. In short, he’s more than capable of being medium-specific; he’s more than capable of blowing extraordinarily beautiful glass vessels. He can do the aesthetically straight and narrow. It’s just that larger issues are perhaps best (and quite possibly more interestingly) dealt with via sculptural installations incorporating non-glass elements.
Which inevitably brings me back to, yes, drinking glasses. Entangled (2007) is another variant of this common, everyday object. It’s also pierced (again, specifically blown this way), numerous holes in the vessel negating any utile function and making way for a weave of rope in, around, and through it.
In his mixed media sculptural works, Copping marries glass to the world, a marriage that is all about transparency, about a specific kind of seeing through and into the world that only glass can truly address, a medium at once visually porous (though not exclusively and absolutely), and yet all about a surface that can aesthetically root our seeing (though too not exclusively and absolutely). Glass permits.
Currently, Copping is finishing up an artist residency at the Canadian Canoe Museum in Peterborough, Ontario, working for the past seven months on a project that involves completely encrusting a full scale, working cedar-strip canoe in mirrors for an upcoming exhibition.
At this stage of his artistic journey, it’s apparently time for some reflection.
By Gil McElroy