The sea’s characteristics, particularly its unpredictability and perpetual rhythm, continuously inspire, Alva Gallagher tells Carissa Farrell
A childhood spent sailing and scuba diving off the coast of Donegal has hard-wired an instinct to consistently return to the theme of the sea and marine life, which lies at the core of Alva Gallagher’s work. As she says: ‘I began to explore the deep sea at a young age and adore the solitude and sense of calm experienced in the depths of the water.’
Gallagher pursues her sculptural practice mainly (but not exclusively) through the medium of cast glass – she also works in steel, bronze, copper and cast Portland. The material qualities of glass production easily lend themselves to uncanny representations of water and aquatic life, but things get tricky if you push glass into the realm of figurative or abstract expression. Putting aside questions about fine craft versus fine art, bringing glass as a medium into artistic practice poses great risk and a demand for deeply felt intuition that recognises the pitfalls of being derivative. Material culture has baggage that needs to be unpacked and, whether consciously or not, Gallagher achieves this through her reflex to seek immersion rather than representation through glass.
She says of her work: ‘The dual qualities of ferocity and calmness of the sea are mirrored in the unique manipulative states of glass and bronze to flash freeze that perpetual movement exposing moments hidden beneath the surface.’
Anyone who spends a lot of time in open water will know that the crushing power of the sea is often invisible. Gallagher’s work, Tidal, is part of a series of visually compelling cast glass pieces that have a compressed internal power (Fig 6). Externally, its sculptural form and liquid manifestation in green glass clearly references the sea with pools, flows, waves and splashes.
The piece is an upright quadrant form depicting a large wave at the moment of collapse. Constructed from sheets of cast glass that fuse together at the base, the wave gradually falls – bulging and splitting, melting, crumpling and folding away from itself. The disintegration is both liquid and jagged, with parts resembling sheet metal buckling from the upward force of the tide. Tidal is releasing the invisible energy of the often-imperceptible swelling of the sea. The transformation from the compacted solid base to the chaotic outer edges, which flap and break down, illustrate the sea’s mercurial nature.
‘I work particularly with cast bronze and glass for their unique manipulative states while molten,’ says Gallagher. The process involves setting individual lost wax plaster moulds cast multiple times; these pieces are cast and cooled over the space of one to two weeks, introducing an element of risk as the kiln cannot be opened until the end of the two-week period.
Two other works, both titled Wave, lean towards a more poetic and charming interpretation of the sea. The more literal of the two takes the form of a billowing sheet of glass, whose tapered edge ruffles loosely and gently on to an imaginary shore (Fig 7). The surface of the swell is etched with a pattern of sea foam that streaks formlessly at the will of underwater currents. The second Wave piece is less literal but, in some way, more representative (Fig 8). Resembling a bowl or vessel form, it is made from gradually widening ellipse-shaped glass sheets stacked one on top of the other. From the top view, the elliptical loops are visible through the surface of the piece, rendering a ripple effect from the centre outwards. The edges, for the most part, are tapered flatly with a minimal amount of puckering. Gallagher nudges the viewers urge to be submerged inside these pieces. There is a sense of her own compulsion for and association with the sea that transcends notions of representation in favour of total immersion.
With the materials I use, it is about the work and the concept of the piece first; I then choose what materials to use to achieve what I want
Periods of time living in the Canadian Arctic have filtered through Gallagher’s practice. A number of works – Restless, Fossil and Chambers (Fig 1) – stay with the theme of immersion, but adhere to a more literal narrative. They feature human fingers trapped or emerging from either glass or resin – as though frozen in motion. Fossil has the feel of a rectangular slab of ore, mottled with crystal and wild steel as though it has just been quarried from the ground. The illusion of depth is achieved with variations of blue patination in the glass so that the fingers inside are sinking and just visible where the light finds them. Chambers is a pool of clear resin from which a hand emerges. It’s not easy to reconcile the figurative drama of these pieces with Gallagher’s abstract bonding with the sea in previous work. There are potentially gruesome associations – famine burials that have been exposed by coastal erosion or archaeology that is newly found and then immediately destroyed by retreating glaciers. But it is Gallagher’s hard-core appreciation of the unforgiving forces of nature and implied acceptance of the harsh circle of life that gives these pieces a dignified stillness.
Gallagher’s most recent public commission, for the Sharp Building in Dublin, continues her fascination with underwater immersion but, appropriately, strikes a more monumental and spirited tone. Rise is a large-scale work comprised of a series of glass globes resembling bubbles, which are strung on to metal stems in various sizes that hang from just below the ceiling of the atrium space. It can be viewed upwards from the ground floor or more closely and horizontally from a mezzanine above. It is a playful and joyful work that conjures childhood games of blowing bubbles, swimming underwater and indeed, the Fizzy Lifting Room in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Gallagher pared back elements from a similar previous piece to make Rise a sleek and substantial achievement in engineering, design and aesthetic finish.
Gallagher describes how she approaches the technical side of her practice: ‘I’ve always been drawn to the technical manipulation and effects of all materials that can be manipulated with heat, melted and welded, and chose to study the most, in my opinion, difficult one to work with technically and then worked out how to melt and cool the others from that.’
This journeyman approach to achieving a thorough understanding of the science of materials and production gives Gallagher the freedom to stretch, push and mould them to fit her conceptual process.
‘With the materials I use, it is about the work and the concept of the piece first,’ she explains. ‘I then choose what materials to use to achieve what I want.’
Gallagher and the McGarrell Reilly Group were awarded the Jim McNaughton Perpetual Award for Best Commissioning Practice at the 2019 Allianz Business to Arts Awards. The award is a testament to Gallagher’s ambition and skill in project management as much as to her creative vision and design ability. Every artist knows that sustaining a practice that mixes public and corporate commissions with the need to make time for innovation in the studio is not easy. Maintaining artistic autonomy and critical approval from your industry peers must somehow be squared with meeting commissioning clients’ expectations and completing projects with skill and competence.
More recently, Gallagher has made a series of stunning oil paintings that flow from her sculptural practice. She has consistently used painting in her studio as part of her research process into form and surface textures but, following a period in the Arctic in 2017, she describes how these paintings ‘went past this research phase and developed into a whole series’. Ostensibly, they are abstract pieces, but her preoccupation with the sea gives away their pictorial origins. Ice Floe captures the quickly flowing sea foam as it surges over rocks and sand and then curls around to gush backwards in a riptide. Icescapes illustrates the enormous power and depth of the foaming sea against the Arctic shelf, and Reef (Fig 5) and Thaw represent the seasonal metamorphosis of the Arctic region in the gleaming blue depth of sea pools. As with her sculptural work, Gallagher has investigated and manipulated the possibilities of paint and other media to render these works with extraordinary originality.
‘My work continues a research of oceanic movements and elements. Its characteristics continuously inspire, particularly its unpredictability and perpetual rhythm, which I endeavour to capture.’
Carissa Farrell is an independent curator and visual arts consultant based in Dublin.