Clare Belfrage: A Measure of Time

With a major exhibition at JamFactory, another celebrating 15 years of art practice at the Art Gallery of South Australia and a beautifully illustrated Wakefield Press publication, Clare Belfrage is the featured artist of several SALA 2018 projects.

Belfrage has worked as a glass artist since completing a degree in Ceramic Design in the late 1980s. Her early conversion to the medium was emphatic. Where ceramics offered a measured approach with often lengthy periods between throwing/building, decorating, applying glazes, then firing, glass, particularly working with hot glass, was immediate. The rush of having to make intuitive, heartbeat decisions with a molten form – that has a mind of its own – was palpable then and remains so to the present day.

The JamFactory exhibition consists almost entirely of new work. It’s a rare opportunity to assess the mature talents of one of Australia’s most accomplished glass artists. It also gives insights into methodology and the artist’s capacity to explore a number of central ideas or imperatives that have continued to shape her creative journey. The value of Rhythms of Necessity (Wakefield Press) is that the publication holds this journey up to the light to allow different facets to be appreciated. Her personal growth has been shaped by rich family experiences, both as a child and parent, in which engagement with nature has always been front and centre. Given the scale and physical demands of her studio work, exhibiting, and a range of other professional commitments, the fact that the artist has managed to juggle all demands, run with opportunities and still have the motivation to maintain a creative edge says much about her capacity for hard work and hunger to see what happens next.

‘What happens next’ must be one of the biggest ‘come-ons’ for anyone engaged in making art – and glass artists, like Belfrage, know it better than most. You know in theory what the glass should do when it starts to swell, when it’s folded into a mould, given a slap on the bottom, drawn and quartered or rotated on its axis. But stringers can break, bumps become slumps and cylinders go pear-shaped. Belfrage constantly experiments with processes by staying in control while letting the medium have its own voice.

The ‘voice’ that begins to be discerned in the artist’s work of the early 2000s is a combination of a technical commitment to a dialogue between organic form and linear structures/patterns and an intent to make art which expressed something about connection with nature. This duet has essentially continued to the present day.

Clare Belfrage, A Measure of Time

Rhythms of Necessity aside, the spotlight exhibition at the Art Gallery is a reminder of the leaf form’s central role in allowing the artist to set up a conversation between organic form and linear patterns. This was no one-size-fits-all strategy, however, as the artist constantly worked as if she were a graphic designer, playing off bold with tenuous lines, patterns with simple outlines and opacity with transparency.

From the mid-1990s and into the early-2000s the focus on drawing with stringers (long threads of glass) resulted in a rich vocabulary of chromatic, pattern and rhythmic possibilities which the artist has continued to exploit to the present day. Belfrage makes her own stringers and applies them by ‘walking’ and stretching them within glass bodies. A lifelong appreciation of music allows the artist to see parallels between layering and interweaving stringers and playing music in an ensemble. The fact that her foundational work was inspired by the rhythms of the natural world predisposed Belfrage to consider how her forms might give further expression to effectively the life-force that animates all living things. Boulder and slab-like forms have more recently become vehicles for technical and aesthetic innovation, which evokes the weathering of boulders across time. The monumental character of the sensuously asymmetrical Quiet Shifting vessels is softened by achingly beautiful transitions of fine mesh patterning and dreamy swathes of colour.

A feature of more recent work is the use of etching and sandblasting to deny reflectivity and to cloud the forms in opaque mystery. Belfrage considers that this encourages the viewer to ‘look into the work’ and in doing so become enmeshed in the layers of lines and washes of colour. Belfrage could be entitled to ease back a little and finesse this rich vein of possibilities but in characteristic fashion, continues to push technical and visual envelopes.

Most recent work has seen the artist incorporating shards of coloured glass, which have been insinuated into the rock-like forms and as the different elements combine, achieve patterns resembling the peeling bark of trees.

One moment a massive weather-beaten boulder conveniently downsized to fit onto a gallery plinth and, in the next, a close up of a tree trunk dusted with frost. This push-pull factor gives Belfrage’s forms the capacity to tap into inner senses of everything, macro and micro, being somehow connected and pulsing with life. These are seductive glass works to get seriously lost in.

Clare Belfrage – A Measure of Time
JamFactory
Until Sunday, September 16
jamfactory.com.au

Art Gallery of South Australia
Until Sunday, September 16
artgallery.sa.gov.au

Rhythms of Necessity (Wakefield Press), Kay Lawrence and Sera Waters, 128pp
clarebelfrage.com

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