What could be clearer than glass? What could be more transparent, more easily seen through? At first glance, looking through glass seems simple - as straight forward as looking itself. Then again, looking is not the same as seeing. As artist Ad Reinhardt once observed, "seeing is not as easy as it looks". Glass, like vision, is a complex thing. The more you look, the more you see. Glass is not just transparent, it reflects and refracts, it colours and projects the light passing through it. Glass objects seem an embodiment of time made still, arresting fast moving light into solidified air. Glass is an oxymoronic material that embodies a myriad of apparent contradictions. It is a fragile liquid, a transparent solid, a brittle fluid. In part, the exhibition Looking Through Glass is a meditation on the poetics of glass and the metaphoric implications that surrounds it. It is this, but it is also much more. The contradictory nature of glass is just one aspect pictured here. More broadly the work regards the nature of contradiction itself - it is a speculation on the paradoxes and quandaries that beset both vision and thought.
Phew! That's a bit heavy! How did we get there? Tricky stuff glass, it draws you in. What we are contemplating here, is a series of paintings by artist Dena Kahan, all based on photographs taken while visiting the glassware collection of London's Victoria and Albert Museum. There, a whole menagerie of glass resides, hushed away from worldly ravages and random breakage in stately glass cabinets. A simple enough premise, but the images are not so simple. The painted surfaces are not smooth and sharp like glass but brushy and loose. The images are oddly cropped and seem to tilt away from the horizontal. Glass reflects glass and what we see is multiplied, fragmented and confounded so that we are caught in the glances and gleams of bewildered perception. What here is reflection? What is solid? Vision shatters and splinters as reflections and refractions commingle: once through the glass panes of the cabinets, once more through the objects themselves, and then finally through the glass lens of the camera. Yet the images are more complex still. These paintings with their luscious yet dry surfaces do not simply reflect their photographic source like some photorealist artist might, but translate it into something else.
That such complexity arises from the severely ordered methodology of museum displays and reductive photographic images, is a testament to the subtleties latent in vision. Consider - both museum cabinets and photographs are systems and machines for stilling time and ordering the world. They are not natural systems but are constructed to reduce complexity to an abstract ideal of order and reason. Objects and images are taken outside of time, outside of space, to become frozen public memories. They are subject to a predetermined aesthetic order. Airless bubbles of perfection stripped of their original locales and the fullness of lived experience, these objects and images become systematized ideals that aspire to Platonic perfection. In the case of museum displays, the objects stand as archetypal examples of a generic type, while the camera is popularly supposed to be an idealized form of representation - freed from the 'distortions' common to human vision. Both pluck the quotidian from the world and 'elevate' the subject to an eternal cipher, causing the actual object to become a representation of itself. Both museum displays and photographs are mechanistic systems of representation that parade as objective, while actually being saturated in the subjective. Although each of these systems seeks to limit vision to a particular, predetermined modality, neither of them can banish the supplementary processes of perception that operates when a viewer views them once more. At the heart of these stripped back worlds then, lurks not simplicity, but a perceptual complexity that is made evident in these paintings.
Such then are the idealized systems considered in Looking Through Glass - the stately surety of systems that presents the messy, complex nature of existence as a transparent simplicity. These rigid standards remain present in the paintings but as traces - evident in the catalogue numbers etched onto transparent cubes that accompany each object and in the recurring horizontal green line formed by the glass edge of the cabinet shelves. These now float so uncertainly, that everything seems on the verge of coming crashing down. Although the artist is not advocating these systems, with their all too vague relationship to the palpable, should be banished, she is affirming that these paradigms are not the whole story. Rather, she suggests, that at the heart of these methodologies are contradictions that shatter their otherworldly, hermetic principles. Slippages invade the closed limits of the museum display as reflections of the world outside, seen once more as an echo in the glass. What is often assumed as an opposition - Apollonian abstract order verses the Dionysian chaos of worldly existence - is therefore not a relationship of separation, but an oxymoronic whole. The rationalized order of the world is actually Janus like - glass-like - with the chaotic repressed within the rational, rather than exorcised from it. No matter how we might try, complexity returns to haunt us as shadows. Reflections and refractions all multiply what seeks to be singular.
These paintings then, are little snares for the eye. Like hounded souls we may rush through the world, efficient and determined on our rational paths, seeking unencumbered vision, as if all was made of glass. In so doing, we overlook the latent richness of what appears before us. The artist grabs our arm, slows our step, points to the dizzying reflections and asks 'what do you really see when you look through glass?'
Stephen Haley 2006