Tegan Empson, Idol Moments, at Gallery 2, The JamFactory, Adelaide, 13 October – 29 November 2009
Reviewed for World Sculpture News by Christine Nicholls
Glass artist Tegan Empson’s solo exhibition, Idol Moments, on show in Adelaide’s prestigious JamFactory Contemporary Craft and Design’s Gallery 2 in late 2009, deservedly garnered a good deal of public attention. The works that Empson included in Idol Moments are hand blown, sculpted and laminated ‘creatures’. Wheel-cut and sand-etched, with a surface-coated finish, these works evince a high level of technical skill and more than a smidgeon of sheer playfulness on the part of their youthful maker.
The glass works comprising Idol Moments included finely crafted glass rabbits, robots, and cats, all of which show influences of popular culture and contemporary media. To a very limited extent these charismatic, whimsical, quasi-anthropomorphic creations exemplify the ‘kawaii factor’ insofar as, on the surface at least, they appear to be childlike, vulnerable, harmlessly droll and emotionally needy. However Tegan Empsons’s glass ‘idols’ are more than simply ‘funny bunnies’ or ‘little cuties’. To some degree these works are infused with what at one level might be described as a ‘tiny-tots aesthetic’, but the sophisticated workmanship cleverly subverts such an understanding. The works that comprise Idol Moments are definitely not cloyingly cute in the ‘Hello Kitty’ mould, but neither are they mean and crafty. Rather, they are imbued with true innocence, purity and ingenuousness – categorically more Beatrix Potter than Bugs Bunny. Equally, the exhibition’s title, in part pun, partly bathetic juxtaposition, subtly undercuts the possibility of any uni-dimensional interpretation. There are levels of understanding Empson’s body of work, extending well beyond the superficial.
Importantly, the leavening influences of Empson’s irony and light-hearted, quirky humour peppered with just a dash of old-fashioned camp, combine to prod her audience into thinking about the readiness of many our contemporaries to create ‘idols’ out of inappropriate, mundane, unworthy, or commonplace figures or objects, indeed out of practically anything at all. Tegan Empson’s unassuming ‘critters’ challenge the very notion of idolatry by their gestural simplicity and their humility of bearing.
So, in titling this group of works Idol Moments, Empson gently mocks the emptiness and ridiculousness of our society’s blind worship and adoration of objects, people or animals that are, in many instances, unremarkable or ordinary. The title is also an invitation to her audience to step back, for just a little while, and reflect upon this bizarre contemporary social phenomenon.
While in Idol Moments the absurdity of contemporary society’s appetite for celebrity and commodity fetishism may be the focus of Tegan Empson’s wry sense of humour, in the end it is the artist who has the last laugh. Empson’s signature hand blown works are beautifully made and finished and for these reasons they draw well-justified admiration. In creating such elegant, extremely covetable glass artworks, which are currently in high demand, Empson is unintentionally perpetuating the very phenomenon that she critiques.
In a final ironic twist, Sir Elton John recently purchased two of Tegan Empson’s glass bunnies (‘Brown Bunny’ and ‘Grey Bunny’) from a Sydney gallery. A propos of Idol Moments, there seems to be a certain poetic justice in that.