Space Dissolving

10 February to 24 March 2012

Melinda Willis

Melinda WillisReflected Reality III, 2012, kiln-formed and cold-worked glass. Photographer: Creative Image Photography

Space Dissolving by Annika Harding

You're in a big city. Closed in by tall buildings, you navigate your way through streets that bustle with activity. Light plays on large glass windows in shopfronts, cafes and skyscrapers. You glimpse cacophonies of reflections; people, cars and the shiny angularities of the urban environment.

In her exhibition Space Dissolving, Melinda Willis uses the very material that creates the shimmering reflections of urban spaces - glass - to make works that explore this perceptual experience. Willis is one of a new breed of glass artists embracing this material's presence in everyday life as an industrial and architectural material, whilst also engaging with its strong craft history.

Glazed urban environments are a daily experience for millions - perhaps even billions - of people around the world. Often taken for granted, this phenomenon is perhaps better appreciated by travellers, finding themselves in an unfamiliar city where spaces are defined by familiar sheet glass. The buzzing, dynamic and optically entrancing experience of a city owes a lot to the play of light and movement on glass. For Space Dissolving, Willis conducted a research trip last year to Seattle and Portland and revelled in the reflections of these northwestern United States cities.

Sheet glass is both the conceptual and physical basis for Willis' work. For this exhibition, she took photographs and video of reflections from sheet glass in urban spaces. Then Willis made her works by creating ceramic ink decals from the images and fusing them to pieces of sheet glass by firing them at 800 degrees Celsius.

In these reflected images, we can see all the ingredients of urban life - architecture, infrastructure, people, cars, and the occasional tree. But the experience of urban life is more truthfully reflected by the glass surface, with distortions and double vision creating the feel of city life, with its organised chaos and quick movement.

Colour (and lack thereof) adds to this experience. The minimal colour palette of the urban landscape allows the movement and dissolution of the reflective images to come to the fore, whilst flashes of colour compete for mere seconds. An orange car, greenish trees, red tail lights all command a look as your eye travels around the image at city pace.

The experience of reflection does not end there. Willis exploits the transparency and reflectivity of the glass that she uses by layering and intersecting pieces of various sizes, shapes and curvature. Flat and curved glass create different reflections within the same work in Reflected Reality III, and layers of glass create subtle greenish hues characteristic of sheet glass. The layering of glass also reveals Willis' interest in double-glazed windows, which further distort and reinterpret the spaces they reflect.

The work also reflects its new environment - the gallery space - and the people and objects within. The curved glass that Willis uses does this especially well, catching and absorbing the viewer's reflection as it moves across the surface. Reflected Reality III features several figures of a similar size to the viewer's reflection as they step back and take in this large work. Within the illusory space created, the viewer can see themselves alongside other figures, echoing the urban experience of being surrounded by people and the need for human connection in this man-made environment.

Willis is allowing more space for gallery and gallery visitor reflections in some of her works, such as Distort I. Paring down the images to certain elements - a car, a figure - she lets the reflective surface of the glass take over. These more simple images also suggest the loneliness that cities can sometimes affect. The illusion of space created by the small, solitary images dissolves as the plain glass surface becomes riddled with real reflections.

Lens I and Lens II are also minimal in their imagery, allowing the slumped surface to refract light and reflections. These works use mirrored glass to create additional reflective effects, but the mirrored surface is heavily sanded, leaving patchy clouds of pale reflectivity suspended in the glass. By sanding the mirror backing on the glass, Willis creates a soft, human element in the reflection. The slick, industrial surface of mirrored glass becomes atmospheric and dreamlike; suggestive of wet or dirty windows, or perhaps the reflection of organic elements in the man-made city.

Willis presents varied experiential encounters of urban spaces in Space Dissolving. But as we can see, there is a lot more to her work than a depiction of urban spaces. She explores glass in a multi-faceted way, as inspiration, subject matter, and medium. There are indeed many experiences layered within each work, and many ways of thinking about how we experience city spaces. Glass is a paradoxical material, and defines our experience of urban environments in ways that almost seem contradictory.

Glass creates a grand façade out of light and the reflections of everything around it, more impressive than most static architectural façades. But of course glass is by its nature transparent and fragile. Willis' works encapsulate this tension between experience and reality. The physicality of the sheet glass; thin, freestanding, and sometimes leaning precariously, hints that the façade might shatter. The experience of a city is largely an illusion; a modern mirage.

In Willis' work the image, melted into the surface, and the physical work itself rely on industrial glass. But Willis credits many of her techniques to the glass artists and craftspeople who came before her, who worked hard to establish many different ways of working with glass. With all of their techniques to hand, a door has been opened for emerging glass artists to take a more conceptual approach. The different perceptions of glass - as an industrial material, a medium for artists and craftspeople, and an intermediary for the everyday urban experience - come together in this body of work, truly reflecting the properties of glass.

Annika Harding is a freelance art writer, curator and gallery administrator at Canberra Contemporary Art Space.