Evelyn Dunstan is a unique presence in New Zealand glass and has pioneered a way of working that is startlingly complex and remarkably idiosyncratic.
She was awarded the prestigious Ranamok Glass Prize in 2007 (and been a finalist numerous times), has ‘the coals to Newcastle’ distinction of teaching refractory mould techniques in Murano, Italy (April 2011) and is currently exhibiting in Palm Desert, USA alongside legends of the glass world - Dale Chihuly, Karen LaMonte, William Morris and Lino Tagliapietra. Yet for all this distinction and international acclaim, Evelyn Dunstan is relatively unknown in New Zealand and Pathways represents her first significant solo exhibition here. This is an occasion of real importance.
No Dunstan vessel, crown or tableaux exists only as a form, to be viewed in the round. Each work explores paradox, has a metaphorical purpose and narrative content. Her symbolic language varies between explicit environmental discourse detailing threats and interrelationships to literal observations of botanical beauty. Thematically, her work “is based on the foliage and flowers of native plants, contrasted with those of introduced species.” (1)
Equally significant is her diverse and adroit use of the varied properties of glass. The compelling complexity and technical virtuosity of her work results from a process where each component (leaf, petal, flower, branch, stem) is individually modelled, detailed and then assembled: precisely because of this process, Dunstan is able to use the contrasts of thick and thin, of tone and colour, of glass mass and light refraction as active visual components to augment and broaden the narrative purposes. The result is that her work becomes demonstratively greater than the sum of its parts.
Dunstan deconstructs and reinterprets the traditional vessel shape. In Ngahere Karuna (Forest Crown) 8 and Ngahere Karauna (Forest Crown) 9 an interlacing structure is built through which light is glimpsed – it’s presence fractured – as in the forest. Climbing through this profusion the native clematis becomes revealed only by its flowering. The technical complexity of these twice-fired works is without parallel.
Dunstan also pares back the vessel form in Kaupapa: Autumn’s Reach and Kaupapa: Winter Solstice where repeated skeletal leaves establish both a simplified structure and wonderful visual rhythms. In Matikao (Buds) the leaves are implied yet absent but a winding circular wall of entwined branches with buds emerging takes the viewer’s eyes on a varied journey. In this work – and others such as Treasured Land, Rejuvenate, Ngahere Karauna (Forest Crown) 8 – Dunstan uses dichroic glass which alters colour dramatically and distinctively in different light.
There is a humanist thrust in all her works and this is clearly evident in five wall-mounted, crown works where Dunstan presents the flowers which dominate her work (Bouganvillea, Convolvulus, Clematis and Orchid) in the oval form commonly adorning someone’s head.
The tableaux works Treasured Land, Land of Reflection and Land of Acceptance further demonstrate Dunstan’s technical virtuosity, stylistic and narrative coherence. Each work is composed of free-standing elements in front of a tilted frame enclosing a landscape scene. These are still-life visual poems, homagistic in character, where Dunstan uses pictorial perspective, engraving techniques and the constraints of a restricted palette to parlay the philosophical discourse that underpins the narrative content of her work – that nature and man is interdependently united, even when in conflict.
1. Grace Cochrane, “Reflections on connections: Glass by Evelyn Dunstan,” Craft Arts International, No 81, 2011, pp20-25.