On a drippy wet day in late November, 29-year-old sculptor Graham Caldwell stands before a series of sculptures that softly echo the organic forms falling outside the gallery windows, shyly begging off a conversation about the terminology of glass blowing. “It all sounds so dirty,” he says. “Blow time. Glory holes.”
The art of using heat and air to shape glass may have lent the sexual revolution some slang, but the terms better evoke the mutability of the glassmaking process. It’s a quality you can see in Caldwell’s fragile, light-filled sculptures, on display at Georgetown’s Addison/Ripley Fine Art in his first solo commercial show.
Caldwell, who grew up on Capitol Hill and attended Georgetown Day School, was a creative-writing student at Manhattan’s New School when he stumbled upon his medium during a visit to a glass workshop in Brooklyn. Instantly, he was fascinated by the way glass sculpture “gives light”: “It has the capacity to hook a person,” he says.
Caldwell soon left the New School for a medium-specific glass-sculpture program at the Rhode Island School of Design, where he found himself influenced by the work of sculptor Eva Hesse and the paintings of Chaim Soutine. Things that were made of parts, cartoon painting, and surrealism all factored in. But it wasn’t the facile repetition of minimalism or the ironic mass production of Pop that he was after. Instead, the natural world, with its profusion of imperfect variations on a theme—people, for example—gave him inspiration.
“The treatment of glass is very rarely organic,” says Caldwell. Artisans are “taught to make it as symmetrical and machinelike as possible. It’s a total denial of the material, what it would naturally do.” Which is to drip like rain—or like the “viscous, meaty” liquid it is in its molten state.
His newest works bear titles that reflect this fascination with the natural: Thistle, Rain Mechanism, Cochlea. Caldwell will sketch a sculpture, figure out a jointing mechanism for the pieces, then create two or three times the number of parts he needs, selecting only the best and finessing his technique for each new drop or curl in the process. “If these are analogous to paintings, it’s like I had to pre-make the whole vocabulary of strokes beforehand and then just fasten them to each other,” he explains. Caldwell also bends and forges the iron apparatus that suspends each of his glass pillows and droplets from the walls—and there is a “sewing quality” to assembling the finished whole.
“Making them is the least interesting part,” he says. “Putting them together is the most interesting.” —Garance Franke-Ruta
Caldwell’s work is on view at Addison/Ripley Fine Art, 1670 Wisconsin Avenue NW, to Saturday, Dec. 28. For more information, call (202) 338-5180.