As an artist and designer, the thoughts that come to mind when I think of the word ‘transparent’ are material traits and characteristics. The nature of materials that I consider and work with daily.
But as I sit and consider the word and its nature I think back to being a kid. Every kid has asked and answered the question, “what would be your super power?”. I would venture to guess that most adults have been at a recent dinner party where it was asked in jest, or just to kill time until the roast was finished.
Kids never seem to hit on the really important powers; omnipotence, immortality. But rather they fall back on the tropes of their heroes of comic books and saturday cartoons. Rob wanted super-strength, Heidi wanted to fly, Steve dreamed of superspeed, and Kurt just wanted to climb on walls.
All these choices seemed so timid to me. Bound by societal norms, and still sadly, reasonably constrained by the laws of physics that determined the world around us.
It was Invisibility that I chose as my childhood superpower. The thought of being able to move through the world untethered appealed to me. Even as a child, I understood the power associated with that, despite not having envisioned the scenarios that would best utilize this unique gift. For 10 year old me, robbing a bank seemed like a great use of the power.
This predilection continued as I grew up. I loved the cloaking devices described in sci-fi movies. The visual effect of the spacecraft dissolving into and out of our visible spectrum was tantalizing.
Not surprisingly, this bent shows itself in not only the work that I make but also in the artwork that informs my journey as an artist.
The first time I encountered Fred Sandback’s string pieces I was floored by the weight that they inhabit. The simple gesture of using string to describe a form that demands the viewer to engage with it in a physical way, though not at all proportionate to its mass. The form may be transparent for all intents and purposes but the mind won’t allow you to inhabit the same space as the constraints of the artwork.
John McCracken showed me that transparency can also exert itself in an entirely contradictory way - by being opaque. McCracken’s mirror polished monoliths exert an overwhelming power onto the environment in which they are located. Reflection becomes a form of transparency, hiding in plain sight. The physical mass of the work dissolves into a visual glitch, as though the whole scene has been rendered in photoshop. The dimensions of the work of art are used as a template to copy and paste a simulacra of the world not currently located in the viewer's line of sight.
The work of my college art professor, Berrisford Boothe, had a profound impact on my work going forward. He was a large part of the reason that I began my artist career as a painter. Working with thin transparent veils of color he showed my how to mine the interior light and bring it forward. It’s not enough to simply put a light color onto a dark field, the color must look and feel as though it is emerging from the void, escaping the event horizon and defeating the pull of gravity.
These lessons represent a common thread that carry through my work today. Building on this knowledge, I continue to explore the notions of transparency and opacity in my own work.
In the (un)nameable series, some of my earliest works that exist both as paintings and sculptural objects, I painted the pieces the same white as the walls that they were mounted on. This simple gesture allows the work to move in and out of phase, with only the sliver of light anchoring the pieces. My intention wasn’t to create some illusion where the work becomes part of the wall and vice versa, but rather I strove for something more subtle and complex. A poetic gesture that exists simultaneously within a longer narrative.
After working with plexiglas for the (un)nameable series, I became interested in it as a sculptural material. The homogenous makeup of plexiglas allows for some unique opportunities. Pieces are not so much glued together, but rather they are welded using a solvent that melts a thin layer of plexiglas from both pieces, once pressed together and allowed to dry the piece is once again uniform, not dissimilar to welding metal.
I used acrylic sheets with varying degrees of opacity, to fabricate the forms. Once sanded, the glued seams become nearly undetectable. In addition, sanding the surface to a uniform matte finish also highlights the subsurface scattering properties of the plexiglas. This phenomenon occurs when light interacts with a translucent material and exits the surface at a different angle.
Subsurface scattering can be clearly seen in the (un)nameable pieces. In those works, the light source, inside the boxes, does not have a linear path of travel through the material. Opaque paint is used to block out corresponding shapes on either side of the plexiglas, if projected on a two-dimensional surface the entire field would be covered. It is the thickness of the acrylic as well as the mechanism of subsurface light transport that allows the light to be seen by the viewer.
Once sanded, the plexiglas objects become monolithic. Seams disappear, there is no beginning or ending to the different pieces that make up the object. But more importantly, applying this matte finish begins to highlight the subsurface scattering property of the acrylic. The light begins to dissolve the edges of the object taking the piece into a soft focus. The object-ness of the artwork begins to evaporate, replaced by something that seems to exist ephemerally between a solid and a gas.
As seen in the recent series of drawings, I’m continuing to explore the ideas of transparency. Utilizing thin transparent veils of pastels I am describing scale-less architectural forms. These works on paper draw from the lessons taught to me by Professor Boothe. Find and highlight the internal light. It is by grasping onto and manipulating the transparent quality of materials that allows me to really create something dynamic and layered (no pun intended).