Incorporating glass processes with photography and the moving image, Kate Baker creates deeply introspective and highly emotional work that touches the transcendent, ethereal realm of raw human emotion. Kathleen Linn explores her work.

What attracted you to glass? 

Its refraction of light, the fact that it's a sculptural material that is malleable; it is a liquid and you can melt it. I was very, very drawn to glass – it seemed quite exotic.

I had already been studying photography, sculpture and printmaking at the Canberra School of Art before I embarked on the glass workshop there. Back then (mid to late 1990s) it was an exclusive program of only four or five students a year, but I took a chance. Within a month or two I realised that this material does anything!

I’m interested in the ways you bring skills across various mediums to your work with glass.

After art school, whilst I was seduced by glass I was already quite involved with other mediums and I wanted to bring everything along with me. Glass, as a material within contemporary art, was still largely un-pioneered and I was curious about interrelating it with other mediums both sculpturally and on an image-based level. My first real step was to layer imagery inside glass by screenprinting onto layers of glass and cutting images onto the surface.

I have worked a lot with kiln glass processes. This begins with a sheet of glass that is flattened in the kiln, onto which I screenprint high-fire enamels. The enamels are fired onto the inside layers of the glass and then these are fused together, so the images are essentially melted inside the layers of glass. This gives depth to the images. I then work the surface as well. I now also work across processes including digital printing onto aluminium and mirror, and light sensitive sandblasting. As technologies change, I keep developing my processes, which is really exciting.

Your work often incorporates the human form in emotive and contemplative ways, such as the series Within Matter (2018). Can you talk about your choice of subject matter and how this integrates into the processes you use with glass?

Within Matter looks at spiritual or ethereal experience happening in the physical realm, or somewhere between the physical world and maybe the metaphorical world. That it is actually in matter and able to be captured through matter – the spiritual isn’t separate from our real experience.

Photography has been a starting point for my work for a long time, but I don’t spend an enormous amount of time at that end of the work. I tend to spend more time working with the imagery and how that relates to the material it’s being integrated with. In Within Matter the subject was photographed through quite a dirty pane of glass. This imagery is abstracted further through screenprinting processes and layering or surface texture. It is often a fine line between how much of the abstraction belongs at the photographic end of the process and how much belongs in the development of the work.

I’m interested in the space between abstraction and reduction of the human form down to an emotional essence – the emotional space that resides somewhere between the literal and the complete absence of that. It is a very emotional, very raw, visceral space.

Pulse (2019) marks the first time you worked with the moving image – can you tell me about this direction in your work?

Pulse is very much about the heartbeat of being alive, the complexity and all the intense layering that is part of this. We aren’t two-dimensional; we are complicated beings.

When I started my PhD at the Australian National University in 2017 I really wanted to get my work off the wall. I missed the sculptural aspect and fluidity of glass. Pulse consists of 100 kiln fired glass forms. Created from life drawing studies, these water jet cut pieces are slumped in the kiln – they are quite abstract but reference the human body. They’re suspended and projected through, so the sculpture works like a ball and the projection is inside the sculpture. A friend of mine is a video artist (Su-An Ng) and she assisted with the video production side, and I asked a professional actor (Leeanna Walsman) to perform in the work. The sculpture is like a cell, and she is stuck in there. It is a metaphor for being stuck in your head. She goes through a complex range of emotional experiences over the ten-minutes of the work.

How do you feel glass-based art is received more broadly within contemporary art?

Glass has had its own silo of many years. It has its own movement and galleries, and a certain genre goes along with that which is derived from tradition. It’s a pioneering material that doesn’t have a big history in contemporary art so there are ways to do things that have never been done before. I did have to rail against the grain early on as there weren’t that many other artists working with glass in an experimental way at that time. I had to push in my own direction, but being in a pioneering space is exciting. Although glass does have its own world, it is just a material and it has been an exciting material to bust out of the water a bit – but you have to be quite determined with it! What are you excited about? My ‘Sublimate’ exhibition at Finkelstein Gallery (Melbourne). Sublimation is a process where a material turns from a solid to a gas, missing the liquid state – but here the title is a poetic reference to my work moving into the sublime. It is an active process. It’s about that magic between states of matter transitioning, but you aren’t really able to put your finger on it. I also have my first international museum solo exhibition at Shanghai Museum of Glass in April 2021. I’m excited to use this opportunity to develop my video work to the next level.

This article was first published in Artist Profile magazine and has been republished with their permission.

Image: Kate Baker, Pulse, 2019, Photo: Brendan McGeachie