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Gorgeous Glass by barbala Gulbe

By Amy Bryzgel . 29.12.2009

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Glass art is a rare art. Only in the past several decades has the art form come to receive any critical appreciation as art in the United States, especially after having been popularized by world-renowned glass artist Dale Chihuly.


In Latvia, however, glass art has yet to take its place alongside its esteemed colleagues - painting and sculpture - in the halls of art museums. Here, it is still considered a craft or applied art. Latvian glass artist Barbala Gulbe is unique in the world of Latvian art not only because her chosen medium is glass, but also for her distinctive handling of that material.

In 2002, Gulbe opened Riga’s first and only glass gallery on the narrow cobbled Laipu iela in the Old Town. Simply known as “Stikla Galerija“ (Glass Gallery), this space hosts exhibitions of Gulbe’s and her colleagues’ work, as well as exhibitions of international glass artists.

Glass art is certainly not a new phenomenon to the Latvian art scene. In fact, this year, the Glass Department of the Latvian Academy of Arts is celebrating its forty-fifth anniversary. Gulbe graduated from that department, after having graduated from an applied arts high school where she also specialized in glass.

The debate between art and craft in the visual arts is a long and contentious one. “Art” has always been considered the loftier of the two, in that it is not only the technique that matters for the successful creation of a work, but also the idea. According to Western ideals, a good work of art is the successful expression of an idea, as conveyed through masterful technical depiction in painting or sculpture. With craft, on the other hand, the connotation is that all that matters is technique. This debate has been played out in Western Europe and America in the 1970s and 80s, with ceramic, glass and other artists whose work had long been relegated to the category of craft, arguing for the inclusion of their work within the realm of art, stating that their work, too, contained significant ideas that the artists wanted to express.

In Latvia, glass art is still relegated to the halls of the “Dekoratīvās Mākslas un Dizaina Muzejs” (Applied Arts Museum) or specialized galleries. Gulbe’s work, and that which can be seen at her gallery, fits in line with those American artists from the 70s and 80s, which was more than simply good technique. What is attractive and appealing about Gulbe’s work is that it does, in fact, contain an idea. And the message behind these beautiful works makes them even more seductive, as it beckons you towards the work, to engage with it and consider those ideas. In fact, Gulbe maintains that it is the idea that she starts with.

The concept comes first, and then she creates the work accordingly.

In this regard it fits within the definition of conceptual art, where the idea is of prime importance, above all else. The artist also constructs her work in the form of series, and all of the works in that series operate around the one central idea. That said, she does not consider herself exclusively a conceptual artist. Rather, she notes that her work contains aspects of all kinds of styles, from conceptual and installation art, as well as maintaining formal principles.

Generally, Gulbe says that her ideas come from all around her. “The surrounding world shows me these images and then they are transformed when I convey them in glass,” she says. She also gets a number of ideas from things that she reads, and always aims to express positive emotions in her art. That becomes immediately clear when looking at examples of her work, and also from talking to the artist herself. Her positivity and optimism about the world and what she does immediately comes through.

Not only is Gulbe’s approach to glass-making unique, but her technique is, as well. “It is her own technique,” her colleague interjects, when she starts to talk about the way she makes her art. Gulbe is reluctant to reveal exactly what the technique is – not for fear of disclosing any secrets, but simply because, as she puts it, “as soon as I say what it is, that raises a whole other slew of questions.” This journalist was no exception. Gulbe had no sooner divulged the fact that the yellow color in her glass work is actually a mirror, than I, too, began firing questions at her. It is hard to believe, but the glass with the yellow color that Gulbe produces actually has the same chemical properties of a mirror, so, although technically it is one, you can’t see your reflection in it. In her words, “if one heats a mirror to about 800 degrees Celsius, it loses its reflecting ability; melting the mirror-like layer as enamel on a surface of glass. It turns yellow.” This unique yellow color can be seen in her “Ave Sol!” (Hail the Sun) series, which was inspired not only by Latvia’s coastal landscape, but also the collection of poems by Latvian national poet Rainis, which is the namesake of the series. The color of the sun (which shines over Latvia for nearly eighteen hours during the height of summer), sand (which lines the country’s shores), and amber (which dots that coastline with shimmers and sparkles) are all reflected in Gulbe’s series.

One of her most definitive series is “Puffs”, which is expressed simply as “Makoņserija” (Cloud Series) in Latvian. The artist feels that the English word “puff” is even more expressive to convey a cloud formation, and describes the work more accurately. In “Puffs” it appears that the artist has achieved the impossible – expressing one of nature’s most elusive, ephemeral and nebulous forms using a lasting, concrete and solid material: glass. Gulbe unites the malleability of glass with that of a cloud, connecting the similar properties of two very different elements.

The “Pļava“(Meadow) series is similar. Soft, earthy, and wide expanses are transformed metaphysically into an installation of various glass elements, from twisting powdery blue forms to more earth-toned flat sculptural shapes. She said that the idea was based on the attempt to recreate a specific moment in space and time, one that she spent in the Latvian countryside several years ago. “The source of this work is one great and immensely wide aromatic field, filled with sunlight, which was observed in July 2005.” This was also a continuation of her “Ave Sol!” series, carrying on the idea that the sun is the essential element of human existence. For the artist, this piece “creates a new point of view, with the sun becoming a sort of earth for its people.” In this series Gulbe’s work truly achieves its ultimate expression as installation art, one that utilizes the entire space of the gallery – walls, floor, and shop window – to display one central idea.

A recurrent theme in much of Gulbe’s work is that of balance. In many ways we see this in the Puffs series, where the artist strives to manage equilibrium between the cold, hard surface of the glass and the soft, fuzzy edges of clouds. In the “Līdzsvars” (Balance) series her aim was quite literally to achieve an object that is delicately poised between being a circle and a rectangle. As she described the series herself: “by working with the hot glass technique, I am trying to find a balance between blowing a bubble and a rectangular shape. In the beginning it seemed to be just an interesting task, but later this technique created new qualities of glass and new ideas for assembling 3D forms.” Her concerns are therefore not only limited to concept and idea, but also form and technique. And this is what makes Gulbe a truly unique artist nowadays, as not only does she unite the form/content divide in her work, but she also does so using the atypical medium of glass.

This past winter, Gulbe participated in the EU-organised exhibition “Glass on the Terrace”, which was part of the 2008 European Year of Intercultural Dialogue. The exhibition was on view at the EU House in Riga in April 2008. The artist continues to organise exhibitions at her gallery as well as at the Agija Sūna Gallery in Riga, at Kalēju 9/11. In November, she will participate in the 45th anniversary celebrations of the Glass Department of the Latvian Art Academy.

Gulbe’s “Karameļu Sapņi” (Caramel Dreams) series sums up the artist’s attitude and approach to art-making, as well as life. As she writes about it:

it happens that sometimes day dreams appear... so dream something up! You can become anything or feel like anybody you dream about. Me, I would like to be a seagull...Glass is the medium which allows you to create any dream.” For the artist that can convey something as earthy and supple as a meadow or vaporous as a cloud, through the medium of glass, surely any dream is possible to realise.

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