THE MAGIC OF CARVED GLASS
By Alice G. Guillermo
as published in the "GLASS IN SILVER" exhibition brochure
Internationally acclaimed for his sculpture in carved glass, Filipino artist Ramon Orlina continues to reveal new possibilities in the glass medium. Though trained as an architect, he did not hesitate to follow his artistic impulses that drew him to glass which he considers as perfect material for sculpture. Indeed, no other medium possesses the natural property of transparency that lends glass its distinctive allure. Likewise, as wood has its veins, glass has its "cords" or pouring lines which form wavelike strands within the cullet and which leave their traces after a long period of settling and cooling. In the same way as veins of wood, the cords guide the sculptor in cutting and shaping the forms. But on the whole, the creative process involves bringing into play the reflective and refractive properties of the medium in a complex interaction with the setting, natural or man-made. For glass sculpture which possesses its own formal dynamics holds a dual relationship with the environment. On one hand, it passively reflects the myriad features of the surroundings, even as the images that glide or float upon its surface are continually modified by the changing conditions of the light through the day and the seasons. But on the other hand, the intervention of the sculptor breaks up the flow of reflected images by various refractive and multiplying strategies through which he creates multiple perspectives of interior spaces that reverberate within the transparent form.
It is to be noted that Ramon Orlina (b. 1944, Manila) developed his particular approach and technique on his own. The majority of glass artists in the United States and Europe work with hot glass which involves blowing the molten substance into shape in a blazing furnace. In the tradition of Murano in Italy, the refined technique of glassblowing produces exquisite multi-hued vases and receptacles. However, some artists, while working within this tradition, create sculptural form out of the layering and texturing of elements in striking configurations. Then, too, there are the glass artists who use cold casting or molding processes to create sculptural form, such as the Czech glass artists in Bratislava.
In mid-1975 when Orlina first became active as an artist working in the glass medium, his work was divided between paintings on plate glass of which he had two exhibits and glass mural installations, such as Arcanum at the Manila Hotel. While these gave him immense artistic satisfaction, he decided to go fully into carved glass sculpture starting with his 1980 one-man show, Prismatic Glass Sculpture at the City Gallery in Manila. To be sure, this show was a unique and fascinating experience, being the first of its kind using glass as a three-dimensional medium. Basically, his art involves a reductive process of direct carving on the raw, irregularly shaped blocks in green tones because of the high silica content of the industrial material. But unlike sculptors of wood or stone, he does not work on the material with a chisel: instead, he uses grinding tools and abrasive powders to give it shape, as in jade sculpture. Orlina obtains his cullets from the industrial residues of Republic Glass, a company which produces sheet glass and with which he enjoys a special arrangement.
It was in his 1980 show that he came to grasp the principles of making carved glass sculpture. Here the pieces, guided by the principle of faceting, were marked by a freshness and classical simplicity in their clear emerald green hues reflecting the light and tonal patterns of the environment. Cubist in form, they played on the interaction of geometric volumes in varying relationships to each other, with each work to be viewed from all angles and with generally no fixed base.
At the same time, Orlina's architectural training was put to use in a number of commissioned works in which sculpture was integrated into an architectural context. The first of these, completed in 1983, consisted of four glass works installed in the Greenbelt Lagoon Chapel in Ayala, Makati: the Dove of Peace, 8 meters high, made of concrete and glass portals; the Mudras Cross, a sculpture 10 meters high made of concrete and glass; a Tabernacle Altar made of glass and narra wood, and God the Father, a plexiglass dome ceiling 5 meters in diameter. Also drawing from his structural expertise was a unique metal sculpture, Wings of Victory (1986) made of 671 meter-length birds done for the 8-storey atrium of the Wisma Atrias in Orchard Road in Singapore. Another work in Singapore is Fertile Crescent (1986), five meters high, consisting of four meters of sculpted glass and stainless steel, installed at the Marina Park of the Singapore Indoor Stadium. Ten years later, in 1996, Orlina would be commissioned by the Singapore Museum of Art to set up a window installation, Quintessence, a work 3m 90 cm x 2m 10cm (13, x 7,) made of a myriad glass facets with a superimposed curvilinear design in bronze, the entire work in the form of a pointed arch framed by a bronze lining. The clear blue-green facets of glass at varying angles to each other produce a brilliant prismatic effect unified by the dynamic swirling design. As a glass work which doubles as a window, its tones are continually modified by the changing light of the outdoors during the day and the by the light of the suspended chandeliers of the hall in the evening.
The decade of the 1980s saw the full flourishing of Orlina's art enriched by travels to international centers of glass art. The first of these was a study grant and tour of glass studios from the Czech Ministry of Culture in the course of which he visited the ateliers of the well-known glass artists Libensky, Hlava, and Soukup. This marked his first occasion to meet fellow glass artists in their own country, especially since Czechoslovakia has a long tradition of glass art. Their collegial encouragement and support inspired Orlina to bring out the full potential of his art. In the United States, Orlina went on an observation tour of Steuben Glass in Corning, New York and met with Dale Chihuly, associated with the Museum of International Glass in Tacoma. Although Orlina has maintained his own individual approach, he has been in touch through the years with these centers of glass art through tour programs, exhibitions, and international competitions.
Thus, on a highly optimistic note, he came up with his Naesa Series in 1988 which opened at the Lopez Museum Gallery in Manila and subsequently toured Kuala Lumpur and Singapore. The two major series, Naesa (ASEAN spelled backwards) Series, and the subsequent Ningning (Filipino word for "sparkle") were inspired by familial themes such as motherhood and the bringing up of his two young daughters. Thus, in celebration of the human form, his sculptures, formerly cubistic, became softly rounded and mellifluous, sensuous and erotic, in the female torsos and breasts. But while the medium for this imagery is glass, there is nothing that suggests the fragile and brittle, but all is smooth and seamless, of eminent plasticity and tactile appeal. Here the artist fully exploited the transparency of the material by introducing inner chambers and passages that go beyond the surface treatments of shaping, faceting, and polishing. Likewise, Orlina counterposes transparency with translucency in the contrast of textures, clear and frosted, in order to enhance the sparkling allure of the freshly-minted forms.
He would further pursue this preoccupation with light in glass sculpture in the 1991 show Forms of Light at the National Museum in Singapore. And in these works in which light becomes the subject itself, there is a greater abstraction and dematerialization of form in the fluid interplay of the transparent medium and space. His explorations in the medium would soon garner him a prize as finalist in the Fifth International Exhibition of Glass Kanazawa '92 in Japan held in Ishikawa, Japan. His entry Lyra (1991) in emerald green possesses a classical purity in its vertical undulating rhythms within an upwardly expanding curvilinear form that suggests the body of a lyre. The oval aperture in the center of the form allows space and, impliedly, sound to circulate within and around the glass form.
Also in the same year, in 1992, he would win another award as finalist at the International Triennial Competition of Sculpture in Osaka. It is to be particularly noted that the Osaka Triennale did not call for works in glass exclusively but for all sculptural media. Thus, Orlina's work was commended not only for his handling of the glass medium per se but for its general artistic merit. Here his entry, Phases of the Moon, is an elegant work in green glass with blue tones. Narrow at the base, it is vertical in orientation, with an asymmetrical projection on one side and a heart-like formation at the top. What lends it a distinctive quality is a tunnel beginning low and branching out into two sections that sinuously curve across the glass body. In the upper section is a circular aperture providing a view of the cross-section of the internal structure which at that juncture links up with the environing space.
Ramon Orlina held a major show, A Touch of Glass, at the Grand Hyatt in Hongkong in 1993. Already an established artist in carved glass, he was able to access a wider range of materials. While he still mainly works in green cullets from his original source, this show found him branching out into other kinds of glass: black glass and lead crystal in vibrant colors supplied by the famed Swarovski of Austria. Enthralled by the crystalline hues, Orlina produced as many as twenty-nine pieces for this particular show, nearly half of that number in Swarovski crystal. According to him, lead crystal is easier to cut because it is denser than glass but more difficult to polish, whereas glass requires greater care in cutting because of its brittleness. The sculptures of these series are abstract forms, often with figurative allusions, as their titles, such as Multivision Nude, Red Madonna, Aphrodite, Feminine Mystique, suggest. He elaborates upon the biomorphic imagery of the Naesa and Ningning Series inspired by the female figure as it continually changes and unfolds, revealing the play of inner and outer, concave and convex elements in a harmonious whole.
At the same time, the artist is keenly attuned to the forms of nature in their dynamism and diversity, as in Song of the Sea, Lunar Optics, and Labyrinth. But what particularly strikes the viewer in the new works is an increasingly structural approach which goes beyond rhythmic or contrapuntal designs and contrasting devices. For now Orlina handles form with an immense flexibility, seemingly reinventing the very nature of the vitreous medium, so that at times he seems to turn it inside out like a malleable substance as he produces ripples, passages, and interconnecting steps within the transparent form in which exterior and interior are simultaneously visible. Indeed, some works call to mind the intriguing illusionism of Escher. In addition, the use of colored lead crystal in deep indigo blue, ruby red, or warm amber, lends the forms a gravity that makes for more stable and more precisely articulated forms in their structural complexity.
Up to the present, Orlina considers his participation in international competitions as a way of keeping his art on par with rigorous international standards and of testing his mettle with the world's foremost sculptors not only in glass but in all media. Although he finds this a great challenge, Orlina's personality is such that he attains his objectives with an affable ease and nary a strident note. In 1994, his entry Pegasus won another international award, this time as Finalist of the Suntory Prize, on the theme of Challenges of Form. Like the Osaka Triennale, the Suntory Prize covers all sculptural media. Pegasus, alluding to the winged horse of classical mythology, is a full-bodied work. Its equine allusion lies in the strongly rising figure, curving out on both sides, with vertical rhythms for the flowing mane and a cantilevered section for the powerful head. The integral wholeness of the sculptural figure is particularly admirable, although in this case the work is mainly based on the carving and shaping of the external form.