Laura De Santillana’s glass works are like very sexy Tony Cragg prints come to three-dimensional life. Think ‘Six Bottles, (Large)’ but without that white cliffs of Dover chalkiness. Think the deep fluting voids and nooses of Amedeo Modigliani’s receptacles but without any of their coyness. These vessels are voluptuous, seductive, inviting. They are thick and bent, hollows crushed into dense swathes of impenetrable glass, layers of flatness that were once caught air. I have not wanted to touch sculpture like this for some time. It is a want I confess to the artist with some trepidation, but she quickly reassures me, “for me, glass has to be touched. Blown glass is sexy. It’s moving. It’s liquid.”
For all their liquidity the pieces are extraordinarily statuesque. They are on a human scale and stand, sit or lie as firmly as figures. The shapes are made in series and displayed as drooping repetitions of form that bare individual strains of gravity and time. They are reminiscent of Eva Hesse’s earwax-coloured bags and sacks on lengths of string that seem to drag ever nearer to the ground. What is remarkable about Santillana’s gravitational pull is that it has been stopped in its tracks, and it bears the marks of that stopping. The rebelliousness of the material, which she manages to both tame and make evident, makes for a sort of stopped animation. Marks made by the wet blocks of wood used to flatten the glass remind the viewer of its resistance to compression, these are shapes that were manhandled into being. I use the word not to imply clumsiness but rather a joint and bodily effort; Santillana says, “you can see the story of a piece in the piece. It is forced and fixed by all sorts of considerations, these pieces are hand blown and hand compressed by ten workers in a small space, all working at once, it is coordination, it is a choreography.”
The arrangement of the glass in the space of the chapel has also been choreographed. The work, interspersed with pieces by Laura’s brother Alessandro Diaz de Santillana, is dotted around the bare chapel in lieu of more traditional devotional structures. Great glass slabs shimmer where there might once have been stations of the cross and plaster macquettes of the saints. Alessandro’s glass works are painterly where his sister’s are sculptural, the liquidity he captures demands a more reserved and removed eye in the place of the hands that Laura’s work sets itching. That being said, his pieces seem to communicate more insistently with the landscape outside the chapel, and I would have loved to see some of his work (particularly the wall mounted stepping stones) outside in the grass and rolling hills of the sculpture park.
His practice is deeply attentive to the flaws of the material and he travelled to the Saint Gobain glass factory to make these pieces. The factory is one of very few still making hand blown windowpanes, which are now only required for restoration or for the glass used in traffic and railway lights. Each piece is made by hand giving rise to the wavy imperfect surface that you see in old glass windows. Alessandro has taken these imperfections and run with them, creating bewildering surfaces. He mentions a piece he did for a swimming pool in California and the works make a new kind of sense, they look as though someone is swimming above them, gently disturbing the surface and the light as they pass.
Laura’s altarpiece, made up of an arrangement of six supine glass shapes, is imposing, seductive and humourous. There is a wryness to the placement of the sculptures, which speak to one another like abandoned chairs around a table or perhaps skittles after a game cut short. They are also milk bottles on a stoop, kneeling figures and squeezed out tubes of toothpaste. On the topic of tradition and the individual talent T. S. Eliot writes that no artist has their complete meaning alone, “the existing order is complete before the new work [of art] arrives; for order to persist after the
supervention of novelty, the whole existing order must be, if ever so slightly, altered; and so the relations, proportions, values of each work of art toward the whole are readjusted; and this is conformity between the old and the new.” Santillana’s half repeats, inadvertent and temporary arrangements speak very neatly to these contradictory themes of novelty, order and adjustment. Discussing the ongoing adjustment of the altarpiece she says, “It’s an open work. It can vary. Some works are never settled but I like them because of that. I like the fluidity.” This makes sense of what she tells me next, that she keeps her work at home in a giant bookcase. It is a disobedient library as nothing has its fixed place, rather objects move in and out and the order is remade as she goes.