‘Work is more fun than fun’
When I was waiting for Kirsten Glass at New Cross station I didn’t expect her to pick me up in an old Vauxhall Rascal that she’d bought off eBay. It wasn’t the van that amused me, it was the idea of her driving it. It didn’t seem right to think of Kirsten clad in her usual glamorous apparel — dyed black hair, glittery eye make-up and day-glo leg-warmers — tootling around New Cross with a mannequin’s leg and a black crow in the back of her van. It doesn’t live up to my idea of her quirky—elegant lifestyle.
`Sorry this place is in the middle of nowhere,’ Glass says when we arrive, explaining the need for practical transport. The studio block is a vast cold building where you wouldn’t really want to find yourself after dark, and Glass’s studio is the typical oversized white room; one wall is filled by floor-to-ceiling windows with a bleak view over the railway. All of her materials — from industrial-sized tubs of glitter to stacks of oils — are boxed in plastic containers and neatly arranged on shelves. There is a large new painting on the wall of a girl with yellow eyes and lips staring into space; on the floor is a text panel that reads ‘Have You Heard the Call?’ and another of gold and black damask-style wallpaper. Elsewhere is a kettle and four pretty teacups hung in a perfect row. The only other sign of domesticity is a candle and ashtray on a coffee table. I know that my visual trip around the room ends where the hard work begins. I like to think Glass’s life is fun and pop and surface, but that’s just my fantasy. Holed up in this studio, I know that all there is to do is work.
During her MA, Glass made abstract paintings that combined brightly coloured panels with song lyrics that ran along the bottom almost like subtitles. It was very much the Goldsmiths-graduate-with-a-slick-product kind of work. But then she broke out of the safety of that by incorporating figures against a black background. The paintings also combined different painting styles and were often made as diptychs and triptychs to increase their size. The figures were sourced from cutting out models in magazines that provided a pre-styled pose. She occasionally used that month’s cover girl, such as Kate Moss or Debbie Harry, which at times meant the image on her painting was the same as the one on the news stands, making her work seem incredibly current. These paintings felt sexy and decadent and the text along the bottom, such as ‘Voodoo Dolly’ or ‘Deep Tissue’, functioned like a mood setter. Glass was included in trendy gallery shows like Martin Maloney’s ‘Death to the Fascist Insect’ at Anthony d’Offay Gallery and `Electric Dreams’ at the Barbican. The work displayed very clear influences, such as the text from Richard Prince and the fuck-off attitude of Sarah Lucas. What made it special was that Glass took disparate styles and put them together to create a spark — she engaged the superficial beauty of both her subjects and the style of painting she employed and simultaneously abused them both. The magazine images offered a popular representation of commodity and idealism while her mark making borrowed from the history of abstraction and its place in art history. She wasn’t using models to comment on fashion but to give herself a ready-made ‘idea’ of a perfect image. Likewise, she wasn’t using process painting or text to make an intellectual abstract painting but just to borrow the beauty associated with its surface appearance, creating ‘something else’ in the coexistence of these two ideals. She then went through a stage of adding masses of sculptural relief that fucked up the trademark style she’d established. The paintings got more and more baroque and complicated until as she says herself she `went on a visual detox’.
Looking through the paintings Glass has made over the past year, it’s as if you are seeing some kind of mathematical equation resolve itself in front of your eyes. She’s taken the essential components of her work — text, image and abstraction — out from what had become chaos and pieced them perfectly back together. This work reminds me of her rudimentary ‘collage paintings’ that she made on her BA in the mid-nineties. Essentially they explored ideas of formalism whereas now the use of ‘collage’ is far more sophisticated and is being used both to play around with the geometric space within the painting and to make physical separations between the elements that make up the composition. Something she describes as ‘separating the elements’. She tells me, It’s the name of a Brechtian theatrical technique which aimed to expose the fictional construct as a construct (which equally describes postmodernism), but while the models are held inside the construct the panel arrangements keep opening the reading so it’s a process of going from a pre-produced image I do understand to a “something else” which is continually evasive.’ I remember Glass being interested in the idea of theatrical staging and props, an interest which led her to try and merge these with her painting, and I realise it must have been difficult for her to leave these things behind. But I feel that while she isn’t building things up in a three-dimensional sense there is still a kind of construction going on, achieved through building a giant canvas collage. As a result the paintings are a lot clearer and more defined, and it makes them seem more decisive even though Glass tells me part of the reason for using panels is so that they can be altered or switched. ‘There’s a new flexibility in the process of making; for instance, if I’ve already chosen the text and then I start making the painting and the mood changes I don’t have to keep the same text.’ This idea of adding structural elements to a painting a piece at a time or only deciding what will be on the final panel once the others have been painted seems to work for Glass. Looking at the painting in the studio and pointing to an unfinished panel she explains, ‘If I stretch that panel with linen and prime it with rabbit-skin glue it has a natural glittery appearance and operates as a pretty vacancy incorporated into the narrative, but if I trace on cartoon puppies running away, out of the painting, it plays a similarly vacant role but switches the tone of the overall painting.’
What I am most taken with is the way that Glass has been able to alter the pace of her work without compromising her subject matter or style. Previously, looking at her paintings there was a pressure on the viewer to absorb and process a lot of information in one image, from cults, sex, violence, drugs, music, fashion and fetish to sliced-up girls to art history, and although that made them exciting there was no relief from it. In her recent work those interests are still present but she has found a way to give the paintings a clear narrative while controlling the emotional resonance of them, the difference now is that they are filled with psychological nuances rather than one ‘hit’. In Turn around Bright Eyes she has placed the title text on the central panel in a font that creates a curve down one side on the left. On a smaller panel is a childlike drawing of a rabbit scampering into a damask frame; on the right is a painting of a girl staring into space. The painting is gentle and feminine but also feels very mechanical due to the type of text she has used and the way it has been rendered — you want to think it’s innocent and nostalgic but the sultry female figure and the harshness of the text make you feel that you are being manipulated into feeling something seedy or sinister. I ask Glass if this was intentional. She tells me, ‘As soon as I thought of using Turn around Bright Eyes as centre-stage text I got pretty excited because of the kitschy camp of the power ballad popping into your head. Ideally I thought it would be like when a wedding DJ turns the sound off for the chorus and everyone on the dance floor sings the next bit. But that alongside the Watership Down panel brings in “Bright Eyes”, which makes everybody sad, and the model’s skin is the softest looking I’ve painted, so yes I was kind of parodying that sort of sentimental button-pressing but I built in a hardness structurally which I think sobers it up.
These paintings seem like a revelation to me. I find them straightforward and easy to read but I like their subtle deviations. The sexiness and excitement are still there but without being so confrontational, something Glass puts down to the girls she’s portraying `not making eye contact’ and ‘allowing the atmospheric associations and conflicts to make the paintings — the feel of a propaganda poster rather than a literal reference’. I like the way that Glass chooses text and images that have a tenuous link or don’t fit together at all and plays on that to create an uneasiness. I like to feel like my emotions are being directed in the same way you do when you watch TV and the internal conflict of what happens if you try to react against it and just focus on the way the painting has been made.
Looking at the painting in the studio, the fragmenting, the swirly lettering and the lifeless girl, it reminds me of how in Twin Peaks the central question sets the overall tone for the ripples of other stories. It has the same mystery-that-will-never-be-solved kind of grip on you. I know that it isn’t just the ‘easiness’ of looking at these paintings that interests me, it’s the curiosity of how Glass chooses what to include to create a particular energy that is almost more resonant than it should be. On our drive back to New Cross Station the van doesn’t feel odd anymore but the journey seems shorter; it always does when you don’t really want to leave.
Kirsten Glass is participating in ‘Lip-Gloss and Lacquer’ at Spring Projects, 13 June—14 August.
Gemma de Cruz