The Influence

Glass artist Liam Fleming finds an inspiring sense of freedom in a painting by Australian Modernist Frank Hinder. By Maddee Clark.

Liam Fleming

Frank Hinder’s Subway escalator (1953), and Liam Fleming (inset).
Credit: AGSA (above) and Saul Steed (inset)

Glass artist Liam Fleming is based in Tarntanya (Adelaide), and has exhibited extensively, including internationally at London Design Festival, Milan Design Week and in Berlin for Australia Now. He works at JamFactory as design manager as well as in his studio, where he creates glass objects that test the constraints of glassblowing and explore the complex relationships between craft, art, architecture and design. Liam is the 2021 recipient of the 12-month Guildhouse Fellowship, which will involve developing a new body of work for exhibition at the Art Gallery of South Australia.

For The Influence he has chosen to discuss Frank Hinder’s Subway escalator (1953).

When did you first see this painting? Why did you choose it?

It was 2009, my first year of university. Being Adelaide based and having grown up here, I’ve often gone to the Art Gallery of South Australia and looked up to those institutes for inspiration and for beginning, so it’s a gallery I’m very familiar with. Subway escalator is in the permanent collection. It was hung in the Cubist/Surrealist space along with Dusan Marek’s work, who was just finishing up a major retrospective. Fantastic Surrealism.

So you would have been in a pretty impressionable state when you first saw this work.

I was. I can’t say I did too much art in school, I never “got it”. When I studied art at university, instantly a whole world opened up. I knew glassblowing from a younger age, but I didn’t have that education or influence around art prior to that.

That was a freeing thing – being impressionable about art, being in a naive space. I didn’t think anything was bad, I wasn’t caught up analysing anything about where they grew up, or who they were. I thought everything was great. I was impressed by creativity.

So I don’t know much about Frank Hinder as a person. But I’m so drawn to the Cubist and Futurist style he’s representing in this work, and the way he’s portraying what I see as forward movement in the piece. That’s something I’m now trying to achieve in my own work: continual movement and thinking about what’s next. I see that and feel that in Subway escalator. I don’t feel the need to fetishise anything about it, I just find it an enjoyable and well-thought-out painting. I like the abstraction. It’s a simple and beautiful use of colours, showing movement.

I get a lot of influence from painting, even though I’m not a painter at all. I see it in terms of composition, colour and light, and I’m always thinking about these things in glass – how will light affect my work? It’s the same in this painting. You can feel the movement of light. That’s what I’m aiming to do.

That’s interesting, I’m looking at it now and to me it doesn’t look anything likea subway escalator. It doesn’t make me feel like I’m on a subway escalator.

No, exactly. We don’t have subways in Adelaide, so it’s not part of my world. But there’s an otherworldly idea of the future being presented. When I saw it I didn’t even know the title of the work, and I appreciate that abstraction. If you tried hard, maybe if you looked at a subway, then looked at the painting to study and compare, you’d get that. But I don’t think that’s important in this work. It’s just a beautiful show of movement and progress.

There are shapes and tessellations there that I don’t associate with the train. Or even with going anywhere. But it’s a very flowing piece.

Even with that. Even with that tessellation. How is that? And that’s where you can see those forces of colour and light being so strong in making movement. How to make static, repetitive forms move, that’s a really cool thing.

I’ve noticed that artists, when asked about their influences, will rarely draw on an artist who works in the same form or medium as themselves. As a glassworker who doesn’t paint, the fact you’ve chosen this painter is interesting. Can you speak more about Futurism?

I’d love to learn painting, but I don’t have the patience or the knowledge. The Futurist movement in painting was all about the idea of painting movement. It’s always about going somewhere, which is where the escalator idea must have been attractive.

In replying to my work, I always want to show movement, because that’s how I see glass. Most of us see glass as a screen we’re looking at, a window we’re looking through – static glass. It doesn’t look fluid. But when I gather it out of the furnace, it’s fluid, it’s moving. It reminds you of movement and it’s honest material. So I want to reinstate the sense of movement in glass and that’s where that Futurist idea comes into play for me. That’s what I’ve been striving towards for a long time now.

You’re trying to take glass and give it the malleability of paint, so when someone looks at it they feel that movement. When I think of glasswork I think about objects that can be made to look so still and frozen.

It’s frozen, absolutely. It makes me think about progress. I research glass a lot thinking about what the next step and the next movement is, and sometimes progressing means going backwards. What I need to do in order to progress is unlearning the preconceived knowledge that my mentors have instilled in me and trying to “forget”.

In this space, between the 1940s and 1970s, I think the work feels kind of free. There are so many small and detailed beautiful colours it makes me imagine just a flow of consciousness. I love that about Surrealist paintings, it feels like painting for painting’s sake.

We were talking about Shepparton Art Museum earlier, and I think we have a similar context here in Adelaide. There’s less pressure to please the masses in the more regional galleries. It feels like the curators have more freedom and things are more relaxed with how we hang work here. I like that.

Yes. Like how every year it feels like the major galleries have to do the Impressionists for months.

Yes. And it’s all a numbers game. In Adelaide it feels more like, “Hey this work is wicked, let’s put it on show!” It’s not about the names. In our studio we have drawing club every Wednesday night. To call it a club sounds funny, but we get out about 240 metres of packing paper that we roll out, and we drink beers and draw. There’s that idea that it’s art for its own sake. You don’t have to think hard about it.

Our Monday to Friday is producing art and craft for money. There’s no right or wrong when you’re drawing and we put effort into setting up a space for that. These are the ideas that led me to become an artist.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 2, 2021 as "Liam Fleming".

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Maddee Clark is a Yugambeh writer and editor.