Between Gravity and Light

The critical dialogue concerning the art of Jessica Loughlin has centered on a reading of the works as analogues of landscape, based, in part, on an oft-repeated remembrance of the artist’s concerning her formative impressions of the landscape in the central desert region of her native Australia.  Another common reading is of the works as formal constructs that acknowledge the biographical facts of an architect father and a modern design background.  While it is easy to find an “essence of landscape”—notably the 180-degree land/sky split that is so prevalent in Australia—in the horizontal orientation of much of her work in the last decade, it seems more productive to view the current sculptures as abstractions—pure instruments of evocation that prompt a meditative reverie.  Just as Constantin Brancusi spoke of being pulled between Earth and the spirit, gravity and light, Loughlin wrestles with expressing the sense of limitlessness in the immensity of nature.  She builds her austere sculptures not from what is seen in nature ultimately, but from what is known in the mind forever. 


It is apparent that Loughlin has positioned her art practice solidly within the larger formal construct of geometric abstraction and the lineage of such American artists as Donald Judd and Agnes Martin.  Unlike many artists who choose glass as a medium of expression, Loughlin intellectually embraces Sol LeWitt’s oft-quoted 1967 adage “the idea becomes the machine that makes the art” and pushes her work toward a strict minimalism that belies the easy excess of glass.  Working serially to create thematic variations on a single compositional format and color scheme, the artist attains a certain egolessness in the pursuit of absolute form.  Like the paintings of the late Agnes Martin, whom Loughlin greatly admires, the works suggest neither identifiable objects, nor space, nor time—nothing in fact save a purity of simple geometry and symmetry that opens an abstract spatial ambience for the viewer.  As with the sculptures of Judd, the sensuousness of material and the rigor of the systematic measuring and marking in Loughlin’s work creates a wordless, silent experience of sublimity.


The pictorial flux of solid and void, shadow and light that animates the experience of her most recent series of kiln-formed, freestanding works and wall pieces is the result of both system and process, intention and material.  In their way, these are self-generating objects that arise from the artist’s rigorous logic and systematic formulation of the fused sheet glass that makes up each sculpture.  The square-format wall pieces are divided into a series of horizontal bands of varying degrees of translucency and tone according to the artist’s design; the surface is etched or worked with a grinder to unify and shift the light-transmitting quality of the glass.  The rectangular boxed forms are shallow and slightly elongated toward the horizontal.  Open at the top, they are also built from sheets of fused glass strips; layered together to create banding across the primary faces, and with surfaces similarly worked to give the vessel-like forms “touch.”  The translucency of the banding grades from semi-transparent to virtually opaque depending on Loughlin’s choices of color and positioning in the layering of the glass sheets, and such gradation serves to upend notions of weight and actual volume.  In a manner similar to Judd’s wall progressions, the physical apportionments of volume and silhouette, as well as the contrast of solid and void, in Loughlin’s sculptures suggest the internal/external tension in architectural spaces and can trigger an emotional response. 


In the recent works, color ranges across a subtle tonal palette from coal black to an icy blue-white.  The exact color and the effect of the gauzy bands that mark each piece are determined by the artist’s choices in assembling the three layers of glass to be fused.  Loughlin manipulates her restricted palette—which ranges from warm and cool whites to smoky grays and sooty blacks—to open the individual works through tint and tonality to the capturing of light and suggestion of an austere yet allusive opulence.  Going from shadow into bright haze, the three-dimensional objects are grounded by the opacity of their base bands and seem to open up from darkness into the promise of the light captured inside the shallow void at their core.  Whether black or white or somewhere in the gray zone, the effect seems to lead us experientially toward a serenity of the spirit that finds its source in the realm of light.


It is as repositories of light that the works’ volumetric ambitions are fully realized and their potency for meaning revealed.  Light brings dimension to the forms, whether wall-hung or freestanding, lifting them free of the wall and animating the seemingly solid base of the box forms with an ascending light from within.  Light both implicitly affirms and denies gravity as it expands the viewer’s awareness of the interiority of the works.  Loughlin’s sculptures are liminal; they dance intellectually at the threshold between surface and depth, solidity and gauzy shadow, the physical and the phenomenological.  The light caught within the structures dissolves notions of inside and outside, in front of and behind, and yet also lies on the surface of the glass—reflected yet absorbed.  Circling one of the box forms, one can become absorbed in the fused glass surface, animated as it is by refractions and reflections and its trapped air bubbles—almost alive, pulsing, shifting, and shrinking before one’s eyes.  At one moment the work is all surface sheen without any apparent depth, and then with the slightest shift of light angle, sidelong illumination will sink in to open a mysterious milky, translucent space in the work—a wafer of hovering light that melts and expands the box forms beyond mere physical limits, to elicit memory and more.


The perfect simplicity of form and material in these pieces belies their technical complexity and conceptual integrity.  Systematic and serial, the work’s rigor argues for glass as a serious medium of post-minimalist sculpture and suggests its potential for conveying complex ideas.  The peculiar transubstantiation of matter from liquid to solid, physical form to transparent luminosity invites the viewer to slow down, to open the mind to the stimulating calm of the work’s luminous core.  There is within the coolly reasoned stricture of Loughlin’s pieces the moment of an abstract sublime revealed, which, in its abstraction, releases us from the routine and mundane.  Emanating from within the strict form of her vocabulary is a light, an experience of light that is akin perhaps to a heavenly efflorescence—a hypnotic presence born of visual logic and without words.  Light, that exalting thing which can lift us emotionally above ourselves to grasp what we cannot hold, is an engine of continuous time, changed by circumstance and ever changing.  The light within Loughlin’s works centers us and opens a perpetual present tense of experiencing.