Matthew Szösz

Glass

Seattle, USA

Interview

matthewszosz.com

@c.matthewszosz

Few glass artists have been able to push the material as far as Matthew Szösz has. While he is most known for his Inflatable series, his oeuvre has consistently pushed the boundaries of glass for over a decade. He is a true artist, rebel, and truth seeker, speaking his truth through his sculptures, video art, and his process. Driven by the thrill of failure and the pull of the unknown, Matthew shows no sign of slowing down as he continues to trailblaze his own path in this storied field. Come with us as we step into his world of exploration and contradiction to learn more about what makes him tick:

If you had to break your journey out into stages/phases how would you describe them and where you’re currently at?

Probably the most important aspect is that I was never formally taught how to use glass. Because of this I formed a different relationship to the material, sometimes bumbling, but always practical and usually irreverent- and this has allowed me to meet the material on my own terms and explore it freely.

I came to glass through a side door. My initial training was as a designer- I went through Rhode Island School of Design’s excellent mid-90s Industrial design program when it still had an almost craft sensibility, focused on material and process as tools to innovation. I spent my time learning all I could about metal and wood. Directly after graduating however, I decided that I hadn’t gone to Art School to be a furniture maker, and went searching for sculptors. I ended up working for a Rhode Island glass caster named Daniel Clayman. Eventually, he handed me off to one of his friends, who passed me on to their’s, and so on and so on. Eight years later, I was working nearly exclusively in glass. I returned to RISD, this time as a graduate student in glass.

The long period of apprenticeship made me ready for graduate school, and the experience was transformative. I left with a developed body of work that was moving in many directions at once. I was, however, still broke. For the next 6 years I did not maintain a studio, and instead worked exclusively at residencies, alternating periods of artistic production with construction work, teaching and odd job employment that I used to pay the bills.

“My art practice is a way for me to explore the world and satisfy my curiosity- with experimentation and failure as my primary tools.”

Eventually, however, I ran out of glass focused residencies. I’ve spent the last ten years hustling, keeping together a studio and practice funded by educating, contract work, and the generosity of institutions. I make it a rule to not commodify my art practice. I don’t know if this is a wise rule, but it seems to be the best way for me to maintain my interest in experimenting and making, and keep my studio practice from stagnating.

Throughout the entire process I have eschewed planning, and dealt with the problem in front of me, allowing myself to follow it and discover the next step in the journey. This is a deliberate choice that allows me to discover the next steps rather than arrive at a predetermined goal. This is very much the way my studio practice works- taking cues from the material and allowing it to lead me to new places. I find planning very limiting- if everything works out the way you want, then you arrive where you intended and never somewhere new. That limits the experiences you can have in life, and your understanding of yourself. I’m always looking for what I don’t know.

My art practice is a way for me to explore the world and satisfy my curiosity- with experimentation and failure as my primary tools. Failure, in particular, is an extremely powerful tool in forcing innovation. Obstacles force new solutions or detours. When a plan fails I have learned something – invariably of my own limitations – but it is new information that leads to new territory, territory that was not on the map when I drew it.

This incremental trial and error system creates a steady if slow forward movement, but the best surprises can reveal a lot very quickly. I am always looking for moments of transformation – moments when the materials take over the process and produce something unexpected and serendipitous – these are the moments that keep me coming back to the studio.

You’ve worked with glass extensively and for many years. What keeps you interested in it every day? Do you find yourself experimenting with other materials either now or in the future?

I sometimes think of glass as quicksand- absorbing and difficult to escape once you sink in. It’s a tar baby.

I like to experiment with other materials, particularly non-obvious or difficult to manage sculptural materials- clouds, ice, sound, etc.

I use the same strategy of investigation and attention to feedback across materials, and often use the cross-material application of process to look for surprises. There is always a learning curve to a new material, and more often by the lack of specialized equipment. I recently planned a residency around working with ice- and spent nearly the entire residency learning to repair refrigerators. I hope to get back to it soon.

I keep returning to glass because, as a material, it is endless. It is not one material, but many, with radically different behaviors. We use it everywhere – from windows to lightbulbs to insulation to fiber optic cable, and its capabilities are nearly endless. There are innumerable variations of “glassy” material, all with their own abilities to interact with other materials- light, heat, sound, gravity- each one a world to explore.

Glass is both exacting in what it demands of the user and fundamentally difficult to pin down. Its conceptual nature is consistent with its physical nature- a statistically constant state of chaos with an identity in constant flux. There are so many variables to explore that it often feels like working with a material in superposition- you don’t know what it will be until you make your own observable choices.

I seek a relationship with the process and material that is a partnership, with myself as the junior partner. Whenever possible, I try to allow the material to make decisions in the final appearance of the pieces. I think of it as building something delicate, and then pushing it off a cliff to see if it flies.

Which other creative field has been most influential to your work, if any?

I try to be a generalist.

Sculpture, and the language of objects, is deeply rooted in the physical nature of life. I think of art making as another way to explore the physical world that mothers us. I think especially in the current moment, it is very easy to misplace the physical, to lose contact with the dirt, the wind, the gravity that holds us here.

Sculpture is an Ur-language, that object, space and motion speak across disciplines, sciences, identities without the interference of semiotic mediation. A successful sculpture has at least the chance to become its own object and an independent identity- benefiting from but not requiring context.

We usually see glass as one of the most practical materials, oftentimes made with a clear function. Yet, a few of your most prominent works combine glassmaking with performance art. Could you describe your thought process around utilizing performance art and what you’re trying to capture with it versus your usual pieces?

I don’t think of the videos as performance art. The videos do not follow an arranged script to arrive at a known conclusion. I think of the various video works associated with my practice as documentation- more like security camera footage, they simply show what happened.

The video works are really the core of my practice, in that they illustrate what I find most useful and interesting in my glass and artmaking. They are documents of adventures and experiments with the material, and communicate both the excitement and the surprise that allows me to justify the luxury of an art practice.

Obviously, they are heavily edited to show the most entertaining moments in an often long chain of trial and error experimenting, and the majority of experimental paths never make it to release, so calling it process documentation is also not terribly accurate. What I am aiming to do is to share with any viewer some of the moments that I find most rewarding- surprises, transformations, unexpected results that are the reason that I keep returning to the studio. These moments are more satisfying to me than the finished works, no matter how successful, as once a work is finished, my involvement with it is done. I think of my works that pop up in galleries and traditional art marketplaces as the “side effects” of these experimentations.

The moments I value are ones that instantly generate questions and possibilities, moments that are the beginning of something, rather than the end. These moments are by their nature fleeting and ephemeral, and by their nature require something other than an object to find expression, or communication.

“Sculpture is an Ur-language, that object, space and motion speak across disciplines, sciences, identities without the interference of semiotic mediation.”

Is functionality ever a factor that you consider for your pieces? What are your thoughts on the end uses of your work?

One of my favorite definitions of sculpture is “an object made for thinking”. That this is often overlooked as a function boggles my mind, as it does more to shape our notions of our own identity than any “functional” object. Who are we without Shakespeare, Homer or DaVinci? Without Warhol or Serra or Mapplethorpe? Kubrick?

Artwork creates questions, rather than answers, like the socratic method in three dimensions. I find that an absolutely vital function, and if my artwork can do that, I’m happy.

How long did it take you to create this piece? Can you describe the timeline from ideation to research to execution? Could you go into detail on your step by step process?

A floating glass iceberg had been in the back of my brain for some time before a residency at StarWorks in North Carolina gave me the chance to realize it. I had a rough idea of how the piece would go together, including an experimental glazing system. I also had an idea about a shape that would appear most “iceberg-y” to me- the widest diameter of the piece describes a water line, with a ship-like shape floating above, and an inverted mountain below. The steel skeleton of the piece re-enforces this idea, with the horizontal framing defining the waterline delineation.

Both this piece and the similar piece that followed it, Study After Breugel’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, have overtones of catastrophe and doom. Beyond the ship-sinking and hidden menace (90% below the water) reputation of icebergs, they are symbol of the steady dismantling of the world’s climate system- calving reminders that the North Atlantic conveyor belt is doomed in the near term, with unknown consequences for ocean life and the global food supply.

The residency at Starworks was a joy, but also quick- Once I committed to making the piece, I had six weeks before my return to California. I needed to have CAD drawings generated, and a stainless steel skeleton laser cut, and complete the templating, cutting, dressing and drilling of the glass panels myself. Installation and assembly would require about five days.

These glass panels were mapped from the CAD drawing, printed to paper at scale, and then cut from donated glass, in this case the former front windows of the local brewery. The sculpture relies on the tight fitting of the glass triangles to provide structure to the glass skin, so the finished panels and the assembled steel skeleton needed to fit a 1mm tolerance. Once the panels are cut, they are checked for fit, edges ground, and drilled to receive the connecting wires. The drilling is the most onerous part of the endeavor, with roughly 1,200 holes needing to be drilled.

The original installation also included a hidden water feed, which allowed the iceberg to continuously melt, dripping into a circular reflecting pool below the sculpture.

I couldn’t have created this without the assistance and generosity of the StarWorks program, and Joe Grant, Eddie Bernard, Ben Irwin, Mac Metz, George Dielman, and Serim in particular.

How long does it take you to create these pieces from your Inflatable series? Can you describe the timeline from ideation to research to execution? In particular, could you describe how you achieved the color and texture on this?

There are multiple answers to that question: In the most poetic way, the piece was made in the 30 seconds of its inflation, an indelible gesture that determined much of the final shape and surface of the piece. In a more practical way, it takes me about a month of intermittent work to produce a finished inflatable- I usually make three to five attempts at any particular shape- beginning with window glass versions that help me sort out the proportions and technical difficulties of the design, followed by one or two versions in the more expensive colored glass with an eye to fine tuning the final result. Each of the attempts takes about eight hours over three days to complete. In the most pedantic version, I’ve been learning to make this piece for about 15 years, building my understanding and skill with the process to its current level.

This method of creating hollow glass objects is one that I developed and started working with in the mid 2000s. Sheet glass is cut into patterns and assembled with layers of ceramics paper. The paper prevents the glass layers from fusing to each other, and I use it to create interior voids between the layers. These constructions are put into the kiln, fused, and then pulled out at temperature and inflated with compressed air. The kiln’s ability to bring a mass of glass evenly to a specific working temperature creates a very different workability in the material, but also removes any opportunity for adjustment – there is a single, precipitous moment of creation. This provides a very different narrative for the inflatable pieces- instead of the craft narrative of careful shaping and working, they are a specific event, a frozen car crash, closer to the narrative of phenomena. These pieces benefit from a great deal of painful learning that has allowed me greater control over the shape and detailing, and I doubt that I would have been able to produce pieces with as much control as the one above earlier in my career.

One of the main reasons I experiment as much as I do is to investigate how changing the process used to make things changes the types of forms that get produced. The influence of making systems on our everyday experience is subtle but enormous. We live in square houses because of the interlocking construction methods we have chosen to embrace. The plates we eat off of and cups we drink from are round because of wheel throwing.

Traditional glass blowing produces largely round, hollow objects. This has had a great influence on the types of objects and form factors that have been produced in the material. New processes result in new types of forms, and allow me to daydream about the potential consequences- they are little windows onto roads not taken, or not taken yet.

Inflating things gave me access to a whole family of forms that were previously unavailable. I have only been able to explore a small portion of its potential, and I have the sense that it is a flexible process, both physically and aesthetically. My more recent work is a deliberate attempt to explore within the process, and to expand the available territory.

Much of the previous work has been oriented towards mimicking the natural formation of surface tension based forms- soap bubbles, plankton, jellyfish, cell structure. They primarily used the interior pressure to form spherical bubbles constrained by the pocketed construction of the design. In the newer work, I am addressing the airflow as more of a linear force- guiding it through channels and tubes to create pieces that are more of an outline than a volume. These pieces have a mark making or almost calligraphic quality that combines clear gestures with organic imperfections.

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 family tree.

Did you have any new challenges with these pieces in particular? What failures or learnings did you have when making this?

Color has always been a challenge for me, for two reasons. One, color is not something I have a natural talent for. But more importantly, I have issues with its potential for arbitrary decorativeness- it often feels that color decisions can have a level of auteurship, or dictatorial whimsy that I am not always comfortable with. Details, surfaces and colors should have an “appropriateness” – an integrity supplied by a causal relationship. This is the decision making process implied by “form follows function”, where there is a readable logic within an object.

Could you describe the inspiration and process of these “asteroid” pieces?

I am a big fan of bad ideas. The stupid, the doomed, the plans built on lies and errors. What could be more human? More practically, I work hard at trying not to self-edit. I try to avoid discarding ideas that seem too dumb, obvious or pointless. A prime example was a piece called “Toss” in which I heated a large glass sheet as hot as possible, pulled it from the kiln and threw it across the room. It was the consistency of a wet paper towel. The idea was to photograph it as it flew through the air, and record the changes in shape as it responded to the force of the throw, the resistance of the air, and the influence of gravity.

Bad ideas are not all gems in the rough, but very often the results are not what is expected- the simple gives way to the profound, there is an aspect of surprising beauty, the artist is shown that the world is more complex and interesting than they think it is. This piece is one of two “Brecia Lens” pieces I produced at the same time as Landscape with the Fall of Icarus. It’s a simple as it looks- a glass meteorite dropped into a glass pool. The material traps the impact in a disingenuously gentle moment.

Also, it’s funny. I take a certain joy in the expressing delicate ideas in a crude or stultified manner- there is something essentially human in physical comedy- the daring and elegance of Buster Keaton reaching for the simplest of jokes, the hyperbolic profanity of George Carlin in service of aspirational freedom. Brecia Lens is at once both stupid and intelligent, and more importantly, fun to make.

What are you focusing on when you’re making a more simple, pared-down piece such as here? Do you have a different mindset when approaching this versus a larger scale work such as Golden Asteroid?

The two pieces spring from the same well -they are both investigations into the subject of meteorites- But they are very different in planning and execution. The Brecia Lens pieces are the end of a branching path that starts with a what if, but the Meteor is a much more deliberate piece that is enabled by its fabrication system and organized around its conceptual narrative.

“I am a big believer in sensual and biophiliac notions of the experience of beauty.”

What are you currently exploring for your current or future work? Could you give us a preview of what’s next from you?

2024 will be consumed by a large-scale multi-part commission for SeaTac airport, surrounding the theme of Jonah inside the whale. I am particularly excited to have been able to convince the good people at the Port of Seattle to allow me to take over a small part of the architecture, enabling an artwork that truly engages the building and surrounds the viewer. It’s the first artwork of my own I have had the opportunity to create at this scale, and I am both very excited and occasionally terrified.

In the meantime, I will also be producing a few works for various shows over the summer- in particular the Objects USA 2024 show at R&Co in NYC, which will include a published catalog.

What’s taking up most of your free time outside of work? Where are we most likely to find you outside of home and the studio?

Free time will be a bit of a mythical creature for me this year. Fundamental to any notion of design is the idea of beauty, and the investigation and pursuit of its many facets. I am a big believer in sensual and biophiliac notions of the experience of beauty- Luckily, I can spend what free time I have on “research” – the mountains, the ocean, the deep woods. Art installations, Biological greenhouses, and cocktail bars. Cooking.

I like to travel, and I’ve always seen the opportunity to do that, especially at the expense of a University or residency as the true dividend of living as an artist – there’s certainly no money involved. My wife Anna Mlasowsky has just taken a position as the head of glass and ceramics at Konstfack in Stockholm, so visiting Scandinavia regularly is very much on the agenda for the next few years.

Photo credits: Tourisme Lommel, James Harnois, Matthew Szosz