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Sarah Briland: Problematica

November 18th – February 6th, 2016

Opening reception: Wednesday, November 18th from 6-8pm


Through fossils and sediment the Earth’s geologic record presents an archive of information about past life conditions and ecosystems. Contemplating this cross-section of natural history begs the question: What is contemporary society inscribing into the Earth’s crust today? Scientists now argue we are living in an age defined by human influence on the planet, signified ecologically by manmade additions to the rock record. Since the mass production and widespread use of plastic began in the mid 20th century, humans have added a new stratum of artificial materials to the landscape—a layer that now slowly melts into the Earth, becoming a part of the environment and biosphere. Sarah Briland’s work envisions the unsettling reality of this new era for the geological record. Her sculptures convey an essence of our changing ecology and a speculative, archeological viewpoint on environmental degradation.

A native of West Virginia, Briland grew up near the state’s coal mining industry and later worked as a geological technician in Kentucky. Subsequent scholarly research in the fields of religion, geology, historic preservation, and art enabled her to study and to experience the landscape through a variety of lenses. Taking inspiration from her past studies, Briland’s artistic experiments present a scientific fantasy of the transformation and synthesis of manmade materials into nature. She creates sculptures centered on the subjects of matter and metamorphosis, focusing on powerful natural forces that occur too slowly to observe. Her glass and paper forms, made using plastic packaging materials or commercial foam, resemble biological and geological specimens such as lichen, crystals, corals, geodes and fossils. These hard, sometimes luminescent objects have surfaces that mirror accretion and crystallization and, most importantly, the chemical absorption of plastic. Displayed much like excavated artifacts on exhibit in a natural history museum, Briland renders specimens under the umbrella of problematica—a material name used for organisms whose classification simply cannot be determined.

Initially a printmaker, Briland’s foray into sculpture eventually led her to working in glass. Logically, paper served as her first medium for sculpture—a material she employs for the centerpiece of this exhibition. Her amalgamation of glass and paper underscores her subject: “Glass and paper are both endlessly recyclable,” she explains. “The glass object or paper sheet may emerge from the hot furnace or watery vat as a singular entity, but can be returned to an original state of flux. Paper is beaten down into pulp again and glass remelted to create something new. The mutability of glass and paper, combined with the process of casting, which translates form from one material into another, are potent metaphors for transfiguration and change.”

In addition to casting surfaces, Briland explores geological change through a variety of material experimentations, namely setting up anarchic chemical reactions within the kiln, to both see what will happen and to comment upon this complicated time period which pits manmade materials against natural geological forces. “I comprehend the environment, natural and manmade, as a teeming jungle of interactions in continual flux,” she states. “This ceaseless transference of energy from one entity to another, and the boundless shifts in scale, granularity, and time stifle our understanding.” Arguing the medium of glass (a material manipulated by heat, gravity, and time) reflects the same properties that affect the geological record, Briland creates objects that are both ancient and futuristic in form. Her sculptures offer a fusion of natural and manufactured materials that resemble states of decomposition, deterioration, oxidation, and crystallization. Highlighted in fluorescent, toxic-looking colors, these naturalistic objects appear irrevocably transformed.

A cast polyurethane foam mattress pad, layered with resin, quartz sand, and reflective glass microspheres, resembles a marine coral or sponge. Similarly, Briland’s thoughtfully installed relics of problematica—made from cast bubble wrap, foil, and plastic grocery bags—appear to simulate barnacles or fungus, complete with surface encrustations from unknown sources. The largest piece of this series, an undulating wall sculpture made of cast paper and fused and crushed glass, suggests fragments of a shedding rock face, or perhaps algae or a slimy mold in the process of metamorphosis. A closer look reveals Briland cast the paper against the surface of plastic bubble wrap and then activated the surface by embedding reflective, optical resin and cast glass onto the top of each layer. Both delicate and hazardous-looking, this sculpture appears to be a manmade material transforming over time into something beautiful but dangerous.

Briland chose the colors of decomposition and phosphorescent materials along with a noxious nuclear glow to emphasize the infestation of artificial elements into these natural forms. In making her neon pink crystals and slumped glass, Briland set up an event; she explored the collision and combination of materials by forcing their behavior under the flux of elements and the process of change. Glass and paper allow her to engage in these kinds of experiments. For example, Briland crafted the pink-tinted sculptures by adding the chemical element erbium before the slumping process and the chemical compound alum in effort to make crystals. Erbium is a rare earth element used in nuclear technology, lasers, and the optical fibers of communication technology; since the Roman Empire, humans have used the crystalline alum as a purifying agent for water.

Briland’s fascination with geology stems from its inherent objectives to read history through the earth’s physical materials and the processes that act upon them. By making problematica, she articulates the similarities between engineered glassmaking and organic geological forces while presenting a hypothetical study that is both critical and inquisitive about the future of our natural environment. Briland's studio experiments merge the natural and the manmade, engaging the audience in a dialogue about humankind’s active responsibility in altering nature. A walk amongst her specimens evokes an eerie understanding of pollution and biology and the inevitable merging of the two into matter that is our 21st century legacy on the terrain: a chemically altered landscape resulting from our celebrated technological progress.

  -Caroline Cobb Wright


About the artist: Sarah Briland received an M.F.A. from Virginia Commonwealth University and a B.F.A. from Washington University in St. Louis. Her work has been exhibited nationally including shows at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, PA, The Reynolds Gallery in Richmond, VA, and UrbanGlass, in Brooklyn, NY. She has taught at Virginia Commonwealth University and Virginia State University. In 2014, she was an Emerging Artist-in-Residence at Pilchuck Glass School in Stanwood, Washington. Briland lives and works in Richmond, Virginia.

About the author: Caroline Cobb Wright received a BA in Art History, Journalism, and Studio Art from Washington and Lee University and an MA in Art History from the University of Virginia. She worked previously at the National Gallery of Art, Monticello, Ravenscroft School, and, most recently as Director of Exhibition Programming at the Visual Arts Center of Richmond. From 2007 – 2012 Wright served as a Governor-appointed member of the NC State Art Society Board of the North Carolina Museum of Art. In that role she served as director of the museum’s Speakers Bureau and as Vice Chair of the museum’s Collections Committee. She currently serves on the board of 1708 Gallery and as an adjunct professor in the Department of Craft / Material Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University. 

Event Schedule
November 18th – February 6th, 2016
Agnes Varis Art Center
647 Fulton St
Brooklyn, NY 11217