Cast glass has an extraordinary weight to it, both visual and actual. By its very nature, it emits a sense of substance. When you combine this quality with objects that invoke bittersweet nostalgia, well, you have work that commands presence. In Outdated, Philadelphia-based artist Jen Blazina presents a combination of items: works in cast glass, screen prints, digital images and found objects – some with more overt personal integration and some less so. There is a battle of concepts here, between memory and record, between heirloom and relic, between self and the collective. Though I wasn’t aware of it until I began to write this article, there is also a battle of give and take between me and the artist that surprised me the most.
Blazina’s cast glass work, not quite opaque yet not quite transparent, embodies her ability (or choice) to invite me in to her personal story yet doesn’t give me quite enough information to allow me full access. This delicate dance to keep me at arm’s length leaves me just satisfied enough, yet I am left wanting more at the same time. The glowing glass lures me in, and I’m looking for a view behind the curtain that is so eloquently teasing. Instead, I find veiled references and endeavor to make a connection with the artist herself. What is even more intriguing to me, is that despite the fact that I am feeling a bit deprived from the experience, I’m still thinking about her work five days later.
Blazina describes her work as “a representation of holding a place in time.” She successfully achieves this depiction by casting and repurposing various objects and ephemera once considered cutting-edge, but now antiquated in our current world in glass. If I address the works solely from this angle, they are a well-crafted documentation of the telephone, the stenograph, and the camera – technological tools that dramatically changed our interactions and understanding of one another. Each is forever preserved as a relic of our history, a placeholder on the timeline of where we have been. It is aesthetically strong, technically apt, and velvety beautiful. But is this all there is? Are these just a question of the ideal of these once cutting edge inventions? And if so, is this enough?
Inspired by her grandfather’s photography, Blazina blends surreal imagery, found objects, and familial tokens with digital images to, as she states, “recast the history of the objects as part of my own current voice.” What is both engaging and vexing is the very fluctuation in the volume of her voice. With the introduction of Blazina’s personal connection to and motivation for these objects, I sense and enjoy the feeling of longing naturally tied to one’s family and one’s history, and I’m subsequently looking for it in each piece. When it doesn’t feel present, I find that I miss it.
Reflection is a series of cast glass cameras based on a collection of vintage cameras owned by the artist’s grandfather. There is a satisfying rawness to the material in these dense works that elegantly contrasts with the soft, hazy quality of the colorless glass. It is a romantic preservation of a past technology, but by using icons of the pasts, icons we all recognize, these objects move beyond mere keepsake. They lose the sense of the personal and join the ranks of the collective. According to the artist, the variety of the cameras alludes to her family’s generational growth, but I can’t quite get there.
A bit louder, 8mm, a deconstructed vintage movie camera in cast glass and re-placed in its original housing, examines how our culture throws away antiquated technology for the next best product. Aesthetically, I find this stronger than the cast cameras of the Reflection series. The combination of the cast replica within the vintage case implies the camera may still be active when it is, in fact, entirely non-functional. As well, by removing the original camera and replacing it with the cast object into the case, I am more aware of the artist’s intervention and subsequently, feel her presence within the work.
Correspondence (Stenograph) and Correspondence (Typewriter) dial-up the volume with tangible evidence of personal history. Inspired by letters written from the artist’s great-grandfather when he was working in the United States to her great-grandmother who was still living in Italy, each (cast in glass) symbolizes a form of communication long forgotten. A “document,” a series of portraits based on the couple that are screen-printed onto lead, rise vertically from each obsolete machine. Both the typewriter and the stenograph are strong enough to stand alone, but the printed images give me what I’m looking for – a tangible object of memory. It is the visual reference to a person in juxtaposition with these objects that allows room for Blazina’s chronicle to take prominence. Her story is what resonates, and I want more.
Worth mentioning, 20 Ballads is a collection of miniature daguerreotypes of musicians, singers, and groupies complete in small vintage boxes lined with golden metal frames, embossed leathers and red velvet interiors. Reminiscent of union cases treasured by long-distance lovers, these likenesses poke fun at historical images by questioning the notion of keepsake in the digital age. While I am attracted to these aesthetically, I am curious about the conceptual correlation of this piece to the glass works that surround it. Each is a product of one of the technologies presented nearby, and as such – it invokes a different sensibility. It feels tragic and a bit sad and unworthy of preservation.
The work of Jen Blazina is an interesting query of dualities: private yet collective, concealed but presented, antiquated and modern. Each piece resonates but not all fulfill my wanting. Instead, they raise more questions about the notions of family, time, and recollection as well as larger questions about the faculties of art, the hazards of translating concept, and finally, interpretation. I don’t know the answer to these questions, but as both a maker and a viewer – it is a worthy investigation. Five days later, I’m beginning to think that this, this unsettling feeling of the in-between and the uncertain, may have been Blazina’s point all along.
P.S.: Blazina’s previous installation work is worth a look (see artist’s website) as I think this is where she truly shines. Its obvious she is skilled in crafting an environment that envelops the viewer rather than just filling pockets in a space. A successful presentation can satisfy that wanting in my gut and such is the case here. I find myself wishing she had had use of an entire space at Packer Schopf rather than just half. I would have liked to be able to consider her work without it feeling shoved against the wall and without the context of competing paintings in the background. 20 Ballads in particular, screams for a plush and
seductive room of leather, dim lighting, and low ceilings – an intimate space that matches the sexiness of the work. Even better, in this particular gallery space, Blazina’s work is so well suited for the lower level. The act of walking downstairs and the feeling of being below ground would only amplify the emotions she withdraws from me upstairs. A more considered context would create the intimacy I’m craving with her work and would serve as a good point of entry.
Images (from top to bottom): Correspondence (Stenograph), detail, 2014, 3 x 8 x 10 inches cast glass & 12 x 8 inches screen print on lead, e-light ;Reflection III, 2014, 5.5 x 4.5 x 4.5 inches, cast glass; 8 mm, 2014, 12 x 7 x 9 inches, cast glass; Correspondence (Typewriter), 2014, 3.5 x 11 x 11 inches cast glass & 5.5 x 8 inches screen print on lead, e-light; 20 Ballads, 2014, dimensions vary, screen print on metal, found objects