Mark Eliot Down at the water table (2018), winner of the Tom Malone Prize 2019, Art Gallery of WA; photo Richard Weinstein.
Now in it’s 17th year, the highly respected Tom Malone Prize showcases the transformative, enlightening and inspirational power of glass. This year saw pieces from twelve highly experienced Australian glass artists – what could be thought of as the 'best of the best' – and the winning piece alone is worth the trip to the Art Gallery of Western Australia (AGWA).
AGWA Director Stefano Carboni awarded this year’s $15,000 prize to NSW artist, Mark Eliott. His work Down at the water table is a whimsical, intricate, and quietly beautiful piece.
In explaining the origins of the piece Eliott said, 'It all started down at the local (where else?), after a solid rain. We were having a good natter over a drink when we accidentally bumped branches under the table. Next thing mycorrhizal fungi connected and it was all on for young and old.'
One of the judges, Robert Cook (AGWA Curator of 20th Century Arts) said of the work: ‘As we moved around the highly competitive field of this year’s truly outstanding works, we found ourselves coming back to our eventual winner: Mark Eliott’s wonderful Down at the water table. What an unusual piece! Cartoony but not humorous, whimsical but not impulsive, it’s entirely in keeping with the offbeat, ever-inventive work Mark has been making over the last 20 years.'
Cook continued: ‘It’s the first time an artist using predominantly flame-work has won the Prize, and it’s a brilliant example of the possibilities inherent in this technique. Fluid and downright untamed, Down at the water table feels simultaneously carefully planned and totally seat-of-the-pants improvised. Either way, it’s a delicate high-wire act of technical skill, yet also a very intimate work. There’s a lot to observe at close detail and a stack of surprises to be encountered (like the figures in the upside-down human/canine realm) and really beautiful chromatic nuances. It’s brilliantly fresh in all ways, and we couldn’t be happier with Mark’s piece as a winner for 2019.'
This is an acquisition prize, so Eliott’s work will enter the State Art Collection where it can be enjoyed in perpetuity.
Eliot continued: ‘Since reading Peter Wohlleben’s The hidden life of trees, I am no longer able to see these organisms merely as chunks of wood with bark and leaves on, but as entities with some kind of undeniable intelligence and character. Instead I now commit the different sin of anthropomorphising them. In this 3D cartoon the human/canine story is incidental while the trees take centre stage.’
There were twelve finalists in this year’s Tom Malone Prize. Among the works that stood out was the suite of vessels, Landscapes by Lewis Batchelar (New Zealand born, SA based), who uses blown glass with murrine, lathe-worked and pumice to create a new landscape.
I was enthralled by his depiction of the snow-peaked mountains of Aotearoa, depicted with their fine blue and white detailing reminiscent of melting glaciers.
Lewis Batchelar Landscapes 2018; photo Michael Haines
Another twist on our perceptions of glass, is Jeremy Lepisto’s (ACT) sculpture, Structure 2 (from the Aspect series). Using fabricated and kiln-formed glass, the piece gives us two ideas in one. Viewed from one direction the piece looks like three abstract panels detailing building elements, yet from another the viewer sees a home. The elements create a whole.
Jeremy Lepisto Structure 2 (from the Aspect series) 2018, photo Rob Little
Yet another artist based in Canberra, and perhaps showing the strength of work coming out of Canberra Glassworks, was Intersect Neodymium Gold – a blown, fused, carved and tinted piece by Matthew Curtis (ACT).
The piece represents cellular growth with the elements bisecting and rejoining. I found myself going back to this one several times; imagining imagine how stunning it would look with the sunlight shining through it.
Matthew Curtis Intersect Neodymium Gold 2018; photo Rob Little
Very different in technique, energy and colour was a new vessel, Red Sedge Reeds Fish Trap by Jennifer Kemarre Martiniello (ACT), who uses blown glass with canes, and cold-worked to create her objects inspired by her Aboriginal heritage.
The result in glass smooths out the normally unforgiving fish traps made by Aboriginal weavers from Arnhem Land; the ridges of colour beautifully depicted the ageing traps.
Turning to artists from South Australia, Birds not of a feather - unflocked by Stephen Skillitzi takes several observations to appreciate all the anthropomorphic detail. Made of blown and lampworked glass, the two scary looking birds belie the fragility of the material. In multi-layering this piece Skillitzi wanted to reflect the complexities of human interaction.
In contrast, the simplicity of Myth of the Cave by Kayo Yokoyama (NSW) is a reprieve after the explosion of colour in the previous work. In this piece a single tear drop reflects water dripping in a dark cave, the hand-engraved tree representing the branches that shrouded the entry.
Overall this year's Tom Malone Prize captures the diversity in the approaches to glass in Australia,and does a good job at showcases key trends alongside the incredible skill needed for this tricky medium. To see the prize back in the gallery for another year, is testament to the legacy of this material across time, but moreso, AGWA's role in championing it's place in contemporary art conversations as lead by our major institutions.
It is interesting that the same week that the Tom Malone Prize opened in Perth, Liquid Light: 100 years of Venetian Glass opened at NGV International in Melbourne, demonstrating the very resilience of the material as an art object – and walking around the Tom Malone Prize – it feels as current and exciting as ever.
3 ½ stars ★★★☆
The Tom Malone Prize 2019
Curated by Robert Cook, AGWA Curator of 20th-Century Arts
The Prize is supported by AGWA Foundation Benefactor, Sheryl Grimwood
9 march - 13 May 2019
Art Gallery of Western Australia
2019 Finalists: Australian artists including Mark Eliott (NSW), Clare Belfrage (SA), Jeremy Lepisto (ACT), Marc Leib (WA), Jennifer Kemarre Martiniello (ACT), Nick Mount (SA), Matthew Curtis (ACT), Liam Fleming (SA), Kayo Yokoyama (NSW), Anne Sorensen (WA), Stephen Skillitzi (SA) and Lewis Batchelar (SA).
This year's judging panel included Aimee Frodsham (Creative Director at the Canberra Glassworks), Elizabeth Malone (Art Gallery of Western Australia Foundation Benefactor), Dr Stefano Carboni (Director, AGWA) and Robert Cook (AGWA Curator of 20th Century Arts).