To the uninitiated viewer, looking at Kate Clements’ intricate glasswork, it might be easy to dismiss her as simply another talented decorative artist.
Whilst there is no doubt that she is extremely talented at the physical manipulation of kiln-fired glass, what does really make Clements’ work stand out? What makes her a truly great artist is the conversation that her work evokes about the female gender and issues of narcissistic female adornment. Clements’ work goes far beyond obvious feminist debates about woman as object and the power of the female form. Instead, what Clements seeks to uncover is the very psychological reasoning that leads to the cultural construction of feminine identity, and how women’s efforts at fulfilling such ideals can lead simultaneously to feelings of guilt and individual power. Adding to this is her performance work, which examines the ideas of purity and power, using metaphors presented by external objects as a means of examining metaphysical notions of being.
Constructing decorative, non-functional glass headdresses which function as a separation between viewer and ‘wearer’, Clements highlights a persistent desire by women to transcend their physical nature, in the hopes of achieving the socially constructed fantasy of a ‘perfect’ woman. Using such an elaborate and fragile medium adds to the sense of counterfeit perfection suggested by the focus on veils and crowns, key motifs of the beauty queen and the bride. It is this close examination into our cultural constructs and farcical use of adornments that transform Clements’ work into something more than pure decoration, adding layers of meaning that make us examine the very society we live in.
Hi Kate, can you tell us a bit about yourself as an artist? What are your passions? What questions still need answering for you?
I work primarily with glass but I describe my work as sculpture and installation. I have just completed my masters at the Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia. Over the past two years I have explored the ambiguity of fashion—its capacity for imitation and distinction; its juxtaposition of the artificial and the natural; its ability to divide people by keeping some groups together while separating others and accentuating class division. I’ve come to understand the lifecycle of fashion as a process of creative destruction where the “new” replaces the “old,” yet nothing is truly new.
I am still exploring this and find inspiration in the perspective of critical theorist Georg Simmel whose observations over a hundred years ago remain all too relevant in today’s Gilded Age. “Fashion elevates even the unimportant individual by making them the representative of a totality, the embodiment of a joint spirit. It is particularly characteristic of fashion - because by its very essence it can be a norm, which is never satisfied by everyone...” Style, as Simmel suggests, both unburdens and conceals the personal, whether in behavior or home furnishings, toning down the personal to “a generality and its law.” My choice of materials comments on society’s need to conform and maintain distance.
Let’s talk about your chosen medium. What are the benefits and difficulties in working with glass? How did you first discover your interest in kiln-fired glass?
When I was 17 I took a pre-college course in kiln-fired glass at the Kansas City Art Institute, which was primarily mosaic and plate making. The professor saw potential in me and when I started my bachelors there in the fall I trained as his tech and teaching assistant for the course. I continued that job for my four years in undergrad. Because it was only offered as an elective, I learned the fundamentals through instruction but was substantially self-taught.
Working in glass has pros and cons. The glass community is small and very supportive of its artists. Because of the nature of the material, when you are working with it hot you usually need the help of one to four people to make a piece - so the sense of community is very strong.
A con can be the constant struggle of defending the material. The question of why someone creates paintings is asked much less than why someone works with glass. However, the constant question of ‘why glass’ pushes glass artists to address the relevancy of the material in the conceptual nature of the piece as well a technical one. Working within a craft material there is a wide spectrum of what people choose to do with it. It can range from pipes and paperweights to fine art. If I am speaking to someone outside of the glass world and they ask me what I do and I say glass they normally follow up with asking if I can make a pipe for them.
Breaking outside of the glass community can be difficult too. I would love to be showing in galleries that didn’t only represent other glass artists. Not to get away from other glass artists but so viewers could understand working with glass as fine art and not glass art. This seems to be a line that can be difficult to cross.
What relationships to the female form does your work provoke, and how important is it for you to express these concerns in your work?
I think initially my work was heavily reliant on the female form. As a young woman, I felt the pressures of conforming to some sort of social construct of beauty. At times that has made me feel guilty because I felt a sort of pleasure and power in partaking in that construct.
In recent work I have been addressing how these constructs get translated in different stages of the adaptation of ‘fashions.’ How taste, even ‘bad taste’ can be celebrated in aristocratic society, but once mimicked by a different social sphere it can become kitsch and regarded as ‘aesthetic slumming.’ The concept of fashion and its association with modernity is interplay between individual imitation and differentiation. Fashion, adornment, and ornament all have vicious life cycles; newness is simultaneously associated with demise and death. Though fashion and adornment are closely related to the body, ornament can expand to architecture and environment.
I really love your performance work which I find evocative of the work of Matthew Barney and his use of the body as a vessel for exploring ideas of the human condition. In your piece, Cleaning, the situation transcends the realm of normality and speaks of a higher plane of fantastical reality where juxtaposed items like smashed glass and sweet milk come together to form metaphors about us as human beings, speaking particularly of the paradigms that surround women as having to be ‘pure’ and ‘clean’, expressed powerfully in the denouement of the piece. Tell us a bit about your thoughts behind this and what you wanted to achieve.
This was a very early piece for me that was dealing with my personal experience as a victim of date rape. This marked a turning point for me that was also inspired by a speech by Eve Ensler where she describes the verb prescribed to girls as ‘to please.’ I felt strongly that for a long time I had allowed that verb to describe my interactions with men. There is a rawness and vulnerability in this performance that is mixed with anger.
Who and what influences your work? Are there any artists you recognise as having a big impact on you and your working style?
I just adore Jim Hodges’ work. I think the wide variety of materials and mediums and the way he handles them is truly inspiring and something I look to if I am nervous about working with a new material. Matthew Barney and Alexander McQueen were huge influences in the glass headdresses and the idea of masquerade and costuming. Other influences have been the palace architecture of Catherine’s Palace in Russia. I love the over-the-topness of the patterning and the idea of excess in a space that blurs the boundaries of public and private, the domestic, and the idea of display.
You have stated that your glass headdress designs function as ‘a separation between viewer and wearer’ but that this distance is only a ‘counterfeit perfection’. How important is it for you to address ideas of distortion and fantasy in your work?
I enjoy working with things that are recognizable, but nonsensical and fantastical in their execution. I am interested in the perceptions we have in what we think we are displaying, what we actually are displaying, and how we display it. Some materials can transcend their own materiality. The glass can be seen as ice, plastic, or sugar in the headdresses. In newer work it reads as growths or caviar. Regardless of what it appears to be the fact remains that it is extremely fragile and futile. In a newer piece there is a vinyl treated chintz sofa covered in glass beads. The shiny plastic is reminiscent of plastic covered sofas as a means to preserve something nice, but it can also read almost like a piece of porcelain because of the patterning of the fabric.
What is your definition of ‘creativity’? What does it mean to be ‘creative’ in today’s world?
I believe that creativity is driven by never being satisfied with what you’ve accomplished. That there is always something that can be pushed or questioned within a material or challenged conceptually and that ending up somewhere completely different from what you intended is usually a good sign.
If you could go back in time, what advice would you give to yourself ten years ago? What have you learnt as an artist that was unexpected and what advice would you give to others?
The advice I would give myself is to never doubt your interests no matter if conceptually they might sound simplistic. There is usually something there that can be unfolded into something fairly complex.
Not being intimidated by not being technically trained in a material. Coming from an outside perspective and not knowing the right way to use a material takes away restrictions or inhibitions that might have been taught and allows a certain amount of freedom.