Alphabet! Curated by Mel George

25 May to 7 July 2012

Giles Bettison, Annette Blair, Jessica Casha, Alexandra Chambers, Scott Chaseling, Mel Douglas, Ben Edols and Kathy Elliott, Tim Edwards, Mark Eliott, Jacqueline Gropp, Jeremy Lepisto, Simon Maberley, Nadia Mercuri, KlausMoje, Tom Moore, Ruth Oliphant, Kirstie Rea, Trish Roan, Tom Rowney, Luna Ryan, Harriet Schwarzock, Brenden Scott French, Bridget Thomas, Richard Whiteley, Maureen Williams, Nick Wirdnam.

Alphabet by Meredith Hughes

alphabet, on exhibition at Craft ACT: Craft and Design Centre, is a delicate and delightful display from the field of contemporary Australian glass. The exhibition presents a refreshingly whimsical gathering from a sector of practice that first time curator and glass artist, Mel George says, "Can get too serious". She points out that this may be a by-product of the labour intensive nature of the medium, or the high standard that has come to be expected from Australian glass artists.

George has invited 26 contributors, some well known and some newcomers, to craft one letter of the alphabet. Her curatorial aim was to move away from any heavy conceptual focus. To achieve this she invited makers to indulge in a playful dimension of artistic production, by considering children as the audience. For me, the result is an exhibition conveying as much about the experiences of childhood and learning, as it offers to young people as viewers.

For example, using glass to engage children is a bit naughty because while it creates an interesting tension around the issue of youthful viewers and cultural participation, parents can't help but enter the gallery space with genuine apprehension. This is especially so with alphabet because the uniquely lovely, handmade glassworks are exhibited at child friendly, touchable and, therefore, breakable height; irresistible to children and angst making for parents.

The works seem to be calling out to be touched. For example, the Letter P in Blue-Green by Mark Eliott, a solid blue-green letter P is suspended temptingly amidst a meandering clear glass line that navigates its way to frame the letter. On first impression the P appears to hang and you imagine it might readily tinkle against the line if movement somehow found its way into the work. This was a prospect I found difficult enough not to indulge by giving the P a little push and I thought any child viewing the show, would at least in equal part, share my urge.

Other works also seemed to be calling out to be touched for different reasons. The seemingly dusty surface of Annette Blair's w is for watering can had me wanting to investigate whether any of the dust would come off as well as stifling the desire to hold such an object, transformed as it is by its creation in an unexpected scale and material. O by Mel Douglas is a deep, dark, glossy, round cavern, thoroughly tempting and also a bit scary. Would it be safe to put a hand in there? Do I dare try and find out?

Viewing the collection of works I became aware of my current preoccupation with the wonders that written language promises. My own daughter is 13 months old and the alphabet features prominently in our world; books with letters part creature, part shape, and floating pieces that make bath time an immersion in a kind of alphabet soup, had primed my attention toward those works that attend to writing as something that can be absolutely intriguing to children. Ruth Oliphant's l, for example, is a carved and enamelled glass l-shape. A patterned border frames a doorway that opens wide into an alternative, imagined space, maybe a plaza or town centre from a place far, far away. It's a space that holds the promise of journeys that arise from what letters become… words … sentences … stories. Similarly, the landscapes painted inside the glass h by Maureen Williams entice one's eye to roam over a tiny topography, a map like metaphor for the endless travel and adventure offered by text.

Symbolically, glass also seems an apt medium regarding learning, as its relationship to light has long been used to refer to emerging knowledge. In the architecture of Christianity, for example, stained glass images educated the illiterate through grand depictions of biblical stories1. The Indic tradition has used glass and light to convey ideas of intellectual illumination such as with the goddess Saraswati. She appears holding a glass rosary in one hand and a religious text in the other. The patroness of art, culture and the many fruits of the intellect, Saraswati is invited by devotees to bequeath on them a flourishing of eloquence and literary and artistic creativity2. When viewing glass works the symbolism of light, a phenomenon we can easily take for granted, becomes apparent as a compelling and constant visual spectacle. Similarly, the mastery of language and its representation is a unique and astounding human feat that children simply appear to absorb, osmosis like.

Symbolism aside, it is evident that a sensibility about what may appeal to children has been primary for the curator and artists. Returning to the theme of glass as a cheeky medium to engage children, I invited a friend and her daughters (ages four and eighteen months) to view the show with me, in further pursuit of things from a child's perspective. I could not help but be aware of my friend's anxiety as the girls burned around the gallery space, finding the urge to touch the works irresistible in spite of clear directives to slow down. The four year old, her face at a shared height with the shelf that holds the works, couldn't help but glide her fingers over the softly smooth glass envelope with red seal, stamped with the letter r by Alexandra Chambers. She seemed lulled towards the delicate reddish, gold subjects suspended on a weedy s, her declared favourite, Seven Seahorses Swimming in Slowly Swaying Seaweed, by Tom Rowney, 'because it has seahorses'. When she recognised familiar objects rendered precious, such as the Bs Building Blocks by Bridget Thomas, she just couldn't help herself, moving to poke and prod and understand why these blocks with engraved animals on them were somehow different from those in her set at home.

Disasters were averted, thanks to repetition of the skilful mantra, "Remember! Don't touch the art, or no ice cream.", but the later admission from the four year old over her chocolate gelato that she had been good, "...but I still touched things", made me ponder the precarious kinds of social learning we also undertake. Perhaps in this case, while being absorbed in the seductive colours, shapes and tenuousness of 'don't touch' glass, also gleaning something of the fragile conditionality of feeling welcome in public in spaces.

While the imaginative works gathered for alphabet engage a fanciful side of Australian glass, they also offer child and adult viewers a novel forum to consider the representation of language. Within this, the mediums fragile materiality broadens the scope of the exhibition to incorporate some of the perils associated with learning, for children and their parents.

Meredith Hughes, Canberra based textile artist, currently completing a Phd at the Australian National University, School of Art.