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Heart of glass on show

There is something painterly and sculptural, frozen and fluid, musical and silent about glass art. Whether following the flowing, ballooning undulations of hot work or the lapidary articulations of cold work, the eye delights in the shapes, colours and textures that it seems only glass is capable of.

That’s what makes the Art Gallery of WA’s 15th annual Tom Malone Prize, which is arguably Australia’s foremost acquisitive art prize for contemporary Australian glass artists, such an exciting and enticing prospect for any art lover: it features not only all 10 of this year’s short-listed works but an overview of winning and short-listed works from previous years, spread across two galleries.

So alongside works by artists such as Richard Whiteley and Blanche Tilden you can see those by past winners like David Hay and Gabriella Bisetto.

“The Tom Malone Prize is one of the gallery’s most treasured projects and definitely one of my personal favourites,” says AGWA director Stefano Carboni, who acknowledges the ongoing support of award founder, Elizabeth Malone. “Glass has always been a specific interest of mine, not just in academic terms but because I grew up in Venice, which has such a long tradition of glass (arts and crafts).”

AGWA curator of contemporary design and international art Robert Cook says glass is one of the most exciting and dynamic art forms in Australia. “It is a uniquely captivating medium, capable of almost endless transformation. Glass provides a perfect vehicle for the exploration of a range of themes, from the personal to the observational, and Australian makers are some of the world leaders in the medium.”

Makers such as Silvana Ferrario, Kevin Gordon and Jenni Kemarre Martiniello, whose poised, delicate receptacles contrast with the painterly excursions of Lisa Cahill and Brendan Scott French, whose provocative panels challenge our preconceptions of what working in glass means. As does Tom Moore’s “helmet”, Eyes the size of the moon, as alarming in its strangeness as it is seductive in its beauty.

Cook says ideas about what glass art is and can be are as fluid as the medium itself and shift over time. “There’s a real sense of quietness with many of the works here,” he says. “That idea of glass work having to be flashy has shifted. As have ideas about craft versus art and whether something is sculpture or painting or glass work. All these artists are challenging notions that there is a difference. Where perhaps there isn’t.”

He refers to the “spectacular drama” of last year’s winner, Gabriella Bisetto’s Becoming: a huge tangle of curving tubes suspended from wires, which forms a part of this year’s celebratory exhibition. “This is an obvious favourite,” Cook says. “It’s based on a tumbleweed and takes about two days to install. It really has this latent musicality to it.”

Cook is referring to the accidental tinkling which occurs during the installation process. But all these beautiful, luminous works have a latent musicality generated by the creative and material tensions which gave them life — and which can still be heard in their quiet assertiveness in space for anyone willing to listen.

A Luminous Celebration: The Tom Malone Prize 2017 is on at the Art Gallery of WA until June 25, with the winner announced on Friday, March 31. There is also a free day of artist talks on Saturday, April 1. See artgallery.wa.gov.au.

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