Things to think about when looking at Eli Hansen’s show Next time, they’ll know it’s us:
1. Hansen’s hand-blown glass beakers and vessels are impeccably formed, passing as mass-produced, like the several store-bought laboratory containers mixed in with the home-made rest (the former differentiated by telltale signs of industrial manufacture such as corporate labels and measurement lines). On closer inspection, the many hand-blown pieces (the majority of pieces on view) soften and warm as subtle passages of limpness, slight warping, and other appealingly minute irregularities emerge. A search for evidence of the artist’s hand, the singular, the singularly imperfect, and the barely faulty commences like a search for signs of life and hints of past animate-ness that imbues the presently inanimate with character: Wabi-Sabi.
2. The impossible thinness and lightness of lab glass has always struck me as a minor miracle. I like the way its enchanting fragility dictates an exaggerated level of care and delicacy of touch that should be reserved for hyper-sensitive, feeling things with small bones and soft skulls like newborns or hatchlings or gestating eggs with membranous shells. Lab glass, extremely thin glass is almost as untouchable and doomed as defenseless life.
3. eHow: “When sand is heated to 1700 degrees Celsius it melts. The molecular structure of sand changes during the heating and subsequent cooling and becomes glass. Glass is actually a cross between a solid and liquid, with the crystalline structure of a solid and the molecular structure of a liquid, and is known as an amorphous solid.” Hansen was living on Vashon island off the coast of Washington at the time. The material suggests an environmental, geological memory of place—its butting up of solid and liquid, its coastline and sand.
4. Each glass is uniformly colored: grape, lemon, kool-aid, fresh blood, chlorophyll, and contact lens blue. As luminous as the transparent bulbs and cones of color are, somehow the ones formed in white glass, with their unique opacity and milky murk, are more complicated, containing a vaguely understated implication of material paradox or contradiction. Glass is so rarely opaque. Hansen’s white glass seems to have a core opacity covered by a translucent film. The white glass pieces are necessary punctuations and foils to the vibrant orbs, making clear that glass, as an optical and decorative material, exists to trap and materialize and freeze light into some solid thickness.
5. Hansen’s or not (though his are more rarified and aesthetic and auratic than the green San Pellegrino in front of me), I could get lost in the layered simultaneity of distorted, convex reflections over tinted volumetric transparency which was the incessant fascination of scores of virtuosic Dutch still-life masters: Willem Kalf and Pieter Claesz. Hansen’s little shelf arrangements (each supported simply by two perpendicular rectangles of aged wood salvaged from a very old house on Vashon) really do conjure the Dutch still-life genre—miniature allegories formed from strategic configurations of obsessively observed surface texture, radiance, and reflection. They exude total, maniacal focus of depiction and a transcendent overall calmness that could only be described as glassy. Skulls, cherries, grapes, half-peeled lemons, crustaceans, woven baskets, metal utensils, wheels of cheese, wine, and tulips are all well and fine, stunning even, but the dark glass goblet whose thick stout neck is speckled with a gridded cluster of tiny raised peaks that catch pointelles of light is the unequivocal showstopper, the glittering punctum. Pointelles of light sparingly articulate its otherwise nearly invisible form and you get the idea that this is where the painter goes to show off and sublime. Like Huxley observed of loose fabric, glass seems for painters to likewise be a heightened opportunity to plunge figuration into surface abstraction. But, as Huxley, drugged out on mescaline and perusing a Van Gogh picture book in a drugstore off Sunset, concluded, the representation of the thing (the painting or sculpture of fabric or, for our purposes, glass) is great and sometimes ecstatic, ultimately it can’t compare to the fundamental wonder of the thing itself existing at all in real space and real life, its is-ness. With Hansen, we get is-ness lovingly polished and laced with drug-ness.
6. The clear, clean glasses of Hansen’s aesthetic laboratories offer emblems of refined reduction, restraint, sparseness—refineries and distillations seem to always lead chemical production of one drug or another. The practice of liquid distillation can’t help but precipitate mind-altering substances. Here the work conjures a classed up version of cheesy stoner paraphernalia like bongs and glass pipes as well as the intricate laboratory rigs and clamps and beakers of a meth lab. Have you noticed that meth labs in particular and drug chemistry more generally are popular in art right now for some reason? There was the fictive theatrics of Jonah Freeman and Justin Lowe’s Hello Meth Lab in the Sun (2008) and then Roxy Paine’s Distillation (2010) sculpture installation which formalized a silver labyrinth of tubes and valves; even Mark Leckey got high inhaling coolant in his last show as he sat next to a refrigerator. I don’t get meth so somebody else will have to connect those dots.
7. Crystal (man-made) = cut glass. Several of the pieces are solid cut crystal, one in the shape of a mushroom that could be found in a modern suburban tchochke still-life. Or for sale QVC: little cut crystal lumps rotate on tiny motored stands with mirrored platforms and lit up from below with LED flashes of color that refract through it. Maybe you recognize the type from your aunt or godmother’s collection of cut crystal animal figurines—deer, bunnies, ducks, and, dare I say the iconic, dolphins—all neatly displayed together on some glass table top or shelves in a wall niche; she’s the aunt who also had porcelain pastoral maidens dancing on the coffee table and whose fingernails were sometimes professionally painted with designs and once even bedazzled with rhinestones.
8. Hansen’s pristine scenarios could also be players on their shelf-stage. The vessels acquire anthropomorphic qualities with their plump and bloated volumes, their pot bellies and necks, hats and mouthpieces, circulatory systems and skeletal stands, lips and shafts, orifices and erect spouts that look like infantile penises reminiscent of those perky pricks on Renaissance cherubs or dwarf putti. This is to say there is something both comical, like a small fat man, in the glasses’ globular rotundity and sexual in the puerile encounter of two protruding hollow shafts or the eroticized way a tapered pipe fits snugly in a vessel’s stem.
Eli Hansen, If I could explain how things ended up this way, I wouldnt be here, 2011, Glass, hxtal, plaster, steel, 15" x 8" x 3; This is how it ends, 2011 (detail), Glass, steel, vinyl, wood, 61" x 48" x 24; I couldnt have told you this would be a problem, 2011, Glass, led light base, wood, 15" x 6.5" x 4.5"; We ll return the favor, 2011, Glass, steel, wood, 51" x 3" x 30