I came of age – the late 1970s – in an artistic environment in which artists, and not curators or gallery directors, were taking the lead. In Canada, this led to the founding of galleries right across the country that were programmed and run by artists. One of the credos of this movement was the idea that you were an artist if identified as an artist.
I liked that. Still do, but there are of course issues with such a credo. I think that primary amongst them was the implication of the diminishment – even the demeaning, even the dismissal – of skill. If anyone could be an artist, what happens to things like, say, an ability to draw representationally, to those who seek to work aesthetically in fields in which the acquired skills that we know of as “training” is imperative – fields typically long marginalized, if not even denigrated.
I’m of course talking here about that area we’ve long called “craft” so as to separate it from the “fine” arts – talking about ceramics, textiles, woodcarving…
Or glass. I mean, you can’t just walk into a glass studio, into a hot shop, pick up a pipe and blow glass. There are levels of technology, here, that require expertise, practice – the acquisition of skill. And anyway, isn’t that also the case in fine art fields like sculpture or printmaking? You can’t call yourself a lithographer without ever having acquired the knowledge and skill required to pull a print from a stone.
So I wonder why glass and glass artists are, with a few notable exceptions, still struggling to clamber across that phony chasm separating the fines from the fine-nots?
Which at last brings me to Susan Rankin (www.susanrankin.com). She’s a Canadian glass artist who’s acquired all the myriad skills she wields from places like the renowned Sheridan College School of Craft and Design in Toronto, and the even more renowned Pilchuk Glass School in Washington State, and Haystack Mountain School of Crafts in Maine.
That’s just her credentials, her acquisitions of skills. None of it an artist makes. That comes from somewhere else and is evident in a long curriculum vitae detailing her exhibitions dating back to the late 1980s and which include showing throughout Canada, the US, and Asia.
There are three primary bodies of work she’s engaged with: vessels, columns, and wired forms that include glass elements. As with clay, Rankin’s vessels would comprise the most “traditional” kind of work she’s done with glass, blown forms – vases, primarily – that include primary floral elements. Rankin’s reaching back into glass history here, moving a tradition forward with these works, tall vases wider at the lip than at the base which are engirdled with colourful glass flowers, like the trumpet-shaped Steel Blue over Chartreuse with Blue Poppies , or Soft Blue with Blue Delphinium.
Yet we would, very likely, not regard or consider these as sculptural forms. Why? Because of the representational nature of the pieces? Nah. Because they are of a comparatively small scale and made more for the domestic realm than the gallery environment (where, in fact, they are not at all out of place)? Maybe. Or because (and this is the likeliest of reasons) they are vessels and thereby directly engage the utile?
As with clay, it might seem, so with glass.
Rankin’s series of Columns make a more straightforward sculptural argument that steer clear of that damning link to the utile. Essentially comprised of colored glass disks mounted along tall poles (though some are made up of more overtly petal-like glass pieces), the pieces still clearly reference the floral, though in a less overtly representational way, and thus respond aesthetically to light. Rankin’s shown these pieces as gallery installations, and in outdoor garden settings as well, settings for which they are actually intended.
Her wired forms are curvilinear floral sculptures based around the elemental seed. With Soft Blue Seed Emerging, petals or leaves of wire curve around a blue conical glass shape – the titular seed, itself encased in wire collars – the tips of which curve in opposing directions. In Soft Blue Seed Developing, the glass seed element forms a half-moon shape cradled within a case of wire that is one of three (the two on either side of it are empty) which graceful curve within the confines of a kind of wire saddle form.
It’s here Rankin is at her most abstract, aesthetically extending away from the particulars of floral forms into evocations and expressions of the underlying geometry of the flowering plants on which the work is based. It’s here that Rankin is clearly at her most overtly sculptural – and by that I mean work in which the severance with the utile is most evident.
But it’s all sculptural, isn’t it? The issue of utility and function really is spurious. What’s really going on is that Susan Rankin moves easily between the realms of the representational and the abstract. So what if her deeply representational work is part and parcel of vessel forms, of working containers.
It still speaks volumes about the sculptural.