Having won both the Jutta-Cuny Franz Prize (2009) and a Tiffany Foundation Grant (2011), Matthew Szösz has been widely recognized in the U.S. and Europe for his innovative approach to glass sculpture in the years since he graduated with an MFA from RISD in 2007. So it is surprising it is only in 2023 that he is having his first solo exhibition at Heller Gallery in New York, a show currently on view and entitled "Air Craft". The work in the exhibition is from Szösz's long-running "Inflatables" series in which he pushes the limits of glassblowing by using extreme heat and compressed air to turn found industrial float glass into vessels of singular sculptural forms. The work in this debut exhibition spans the pandemic years and those just prior, with a few works dated 2023. In their range and variety, embodying a tension between buoyant and leaden, between durable and delicate, the "Inflatables" stand as testament to the fervent curiosity that fuels Szösz's career filled with inquiries as to what is possible and ways around seemingly intractable limitations. The Glass Quarterly Hot Sheet recently caught up with Szösz to discuss the work on view and the artist's next steps.
Glass Quarterly Hot Sheet: I've seen individual works in group shows at Heller, but this is your first solo show at the gallery to date, isn't it?
Szösz: Yes, this is my first exhibition with the Hellers as a represented artist, and it has been a very enjoyable experience. Doug and Katya are thoroughly engaged with the artist and the creation of the artwork, and I feel very safe in their hands. I'm excited to put this work before a New York audience, and I think the work has reached a point that fits more comfortably into a gallery setting than maybe it might have in the past.
This ongoing physical problem-solving is what has kept my interest in the series. While I'm not sure that the pieces have become more complex, the process certainly has, and the works have become more finished, deliberate objects. With the new pieces I've begun to add light and color, and the result has been more mature, authored works. The "Inflatables" process provides many different directions to go in -- the current work is not the only available path -- and I doubt it will be the only style I pursue. I'm enjoying the way the pieces are building on those that go before in a messy but continuously complexifying (sic) family tree. The current show at Heller embraces this idea of evolving work, and, while it is primarily recent works, it includes works that reach back to the early iterations of the process.
Glass: What is the largest "Inflatable" work you've been able to achieve in terms of scale, and is there an upper limit that you've hit? If so, what is the technical limitation?
Szösz: There are several challenges involved in going bigger with this process. The primary one is kiln and annealer space -- but there are other, more subtle difficulties. Lifting and supporting the weight of the glass involved during the inflation process, and even getting the required volume of air inside of the piece in the short window of time as the glass cools are challenges. In order to inflate in the round, without a flattened bottom, the pieces must be inflated while suspended in the air. As they get larger, the weight of the piece distorts the form, sagging into teardrops rather than globular bubbles, and glass may simply rip off the lifting scaffolding as the weight increases.
That said, the largest I have attempted was about the size of a cow, had three inflation nozzles, four people lifting, and it took a team of ten. Unfortunately it was not successful, but I would like to try again at some point.
Glass: While the scale of this series remains somewhat consistent, the complexity of the forms themselves seem only to have grown, sometimes with sharp angles, sometimes with curves. Color, also is evident in some of these works, such as No. 88R (2019). Most, however, maintain the monochrome coloration that makes plain the materials' industrial origins. Is that an accurate description of your chromatic choices, or do you see further experimentation with color in the future?
Szösz: My relationship with color has been a cautious one -decorative color has often struck me as an arbitrary decision, and not one that flows from the process in the way that other decisions about the Inflatables series do. Following this philosophy, in the early pieces I did not add colors to reduce my interference in the process, and allowed the material to control the final appearance. I still find the subtle effects created by the light devitrification that happens when float glass -- particularly salvaged float -- has been weathered, is scratched or dirty, and can develop a different chemistry. There is a hazed, or wrinkled, or crackled surface that responds to the contours of the inflation.
Recently, the pieces have gotten more colorful -- although this color is often the result of iridized glass, created by layers of metal deposited on the glass sheet during manufacture. This is more interesting to me a phenomena of material -- the physical ability of the coatings to refract, reflect, and alter the light -- and I'm looking forward to experimenting with different physical methods of coating and colorizing the glass, both before and after the inflation process. Larry Bell famously used his own autoclave to experiment with glass coatings. While I doubt I'll be able to take it quite that far, that kind of relationship, where the color is as much the result of an experiment as the form, is very exciting to me.
Glass: What determines the form, and what, in your estimation, was the most difficult work in the "Inflatables" series to achieve?
Szösz: Really, the simpler the form, the more difficult to get it right. For more complex forms there is no wrong answer -- the inflation of the glass and the transition from flat pattern to three dimensional form, from ruled geometry to organic curves -- naturally creates surprising and engaging shapes that express themselves in their own unique way. Once you try to create a simple shape, one that people are familiar with, it becomes a struggle to match that shape to expectation, and balance all of the parts of the process to perfect the result. I once made a chandelier from inflatable parts that were essentially straight lines -- sausage shapes -- which took many many tries to get to look “correct.” The more recent pieces, which are more linear, I hope, lie between exerting enough control to satisfy and allowing the glass the freedom to be itself.
Glass: While on some level your works read as inflated and thereby buoyant by nature, there is a sharp contrast between other bodies of work you've been making (such as the "Rope Making" series), in which you weave glass threads and create structural forms as you network them into large-scale shapes. You've also pursued these complex forms through other techniques you've pioneered such as in your "Blow Castings" or action-slumping experiments. Are you self-consciously trying to experiment with new ways of capturing form in glass, or how do you see these various explorations of technical processes unified?
Szösz: My practice is a way for me to satisfy my physical curiosity. All of these experiments arise from a search for the unexpected- moments of transformation, both of material and identity, when the work becomes something unexpected or independent. Present in these small surprises is a slow expansion of our ideas of relationship to material and space, and I find it difficult to not consider the results metaphorical. I'm also a big believer in the material itself being an effective teacher, and I'm eager to see as many things as it will show me. That desire for exploration keeps my hands going in many directions, with my curiosity as the central theme.
Glass: These experiments in form and pushing against scale seem to have reached an apotheosis in your 2022 exhibition in Poland at the BWA Wroclaw SIC! Gallery last Fall. Can you talk a bit about this massive object, which seems both right in line with everything you've done that came before, but also a bolder and more ambitious direction.
Szösz: This piece, Study after Breugel’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, was a piece that had been in the back of my head for sometime visually, but the conceptual framework that fleshed out its identity did not arrive until recently. The last few years have had a mild apocalypse vibe, as the cycle of human folly has brought us a warming planet, the sixth great extinction, the resurgence of aggressive authoritarianism, and an inability to cooperate to control an epidemic. We are all frogs in slowly warming water.
I came across a news story about recent theories about the physical make up of a large asteroid, Pschye(16). It had been dubbed the “Golden Asteroid” thanks to indications that it was likely comprised mainly of gold and nickel. Predictably, there was immediate focus on the idea that this asteroid could be a repository of vast amounts of wealth, in its most emotionally resonant and satisfying form -- gold. Every human on earth would become a billionaire. Elon Musk was planning an expedition.
I began to think of the meteorite or asteroid in terms of an extinction event, a modern Chicxulub of our own making, and the idea of golden meteor personifying our self destructive instincts resonated for me. I wanted to create an object that could give the viewer an experience that embodied that idea. The meteor is a consumerist object, desirable and attractive, seductive even, yet also, but carrying threat with it, abstractly menacing and discomfiting.
At the same time Polish curator Mika Drozdowska presented me with an opportunity to exhibit in her very well-run gallery in Wróclaw. I had a large airy room to work with, and this encouraged me create a large object that could occupy enough space to create some claustrophobia within the room, and to create something that was difficult to ignore. The Study after Bruegel was part of a larger exhibition at Gallery S!C, along with some related works, and overall I was very happy with the exhibition in terms of the objects created, the cohesiveness of the experience within the space, and the ideas offered for the viewer to explore.
After the exhibition in Wrócław, the piece was moved and re installed in the glass cone at the Glazenhuis in Belgium. This is a very different architectural space, and it has transformed the piece into a multifaceted reflector of the surrounding structure and the changing weather and light.
Glass: Where does 2023 find you, both with an exhibition of a long-running series at Heller, and on the heels of this major mirrored meteorite you created in Europe -- an angular, sharp-edged imagining of imminent doom but with multiple layers of meaning, including referencing the gold standard and historical conquests fueled by a greed for wealth. Will we be seeing more works of the same scale and ambition from you coming down the pike? Where are you focused at the moment, and where are you heading in your future projects?
Szösz: At the moment, I'm more excited than I have been in some time to produce new work. I think the "Inflatables" series is at an interesting developmental crossroads with the focus on visual excitement, and I'm very excited about working at an architectural scale, which is a good fit for my personality. I have no shortage of ides to pursue a in both directions, but as always, the greater difficulty is securing the time and resources required to experiment and produce work.
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