Friday, 2 May 2014


The Art of Looking Good- ‘Spectacles- The Oliver Goldsmith Collection’ at the National Glass Centre

 ‘Spectacles’ charts the history of the Oliver Goldsmith Company: three generations of eyewear designers. The exhibition showcases some of their most striking designs and models.

The tenuous link to glass isn’t played up here, Goldsmiths isn’t particularly interested in the technology of seeing more the technology of plastic. The key to their success is their ability to mould plastic into new and exciting shapes for consumers. So, what relevance does this exhibition have at the National Glass Centre?

Since re-opening it’s doors last year the National Glass Centre promised a programme of contemporary exhibitions exploring the many facets of glass. This exhibition is the third since then. First the abstract work of Erwin Eisch then the searingly modern Jeffrey Sarmiento alongside smaller exhibitions from research students and staff at the University of Sunderland.

‘Spectaclesis a departure from these themes, other exhibitions have been keen to point out the artistic validity of glass, here we are given a history lesson in design. This is much more museum-like, text heavy, a video installation and almost interactive displays of suspended glasses providing huge amounts of information. The exhibition is laid out like a clock, working round the designs chronologically. This allows the exhibition to display changes in taste clearly, and also show how deeply ingrained and influential Goldsmith glasses are in fashion.

The glasses themselves are microcosms of fashion from their period. Austere 40s glasses remain owlish, 60’s wing-frames feel frivolous and fun, 70’s wrap around cut-out glasses seem appropriately futuristic, the huge 80’s colourful frames are gaudy and the 90’s slick frames are ho-hum.  Michael Caine looms down in a pair of Consul glasses in The Ipcress File. Audrey Hepburn flutters her eyelashes in the huge white frames of Bude in How to Steal a Million. Goldsmith glasses help create persona of either severity, playfulness or a hundred other aspects that the self-expression of fashion allows one.

After royalty, celebrity and the film industry endorsed Goldsmiths, glasses became fashionable. Sunglasses bourgeoned in popularity. Reading glasses had less stigma attached, though as Freeman pointed out in her acerbic treaty on fashion ‘The Meaning of Sunglasses’[1] women remain wary of wearing glasses. But thanks to Goldsmiths, and other similar designers, women have the choice of wearing flattering glasses that don’t scream of academia or secretarial silliness.

The famous clientele have created an opportunity for the National Glass Centre to market its show to an as yet untapped audience. People will come to see photographs of beautiful people wearing beautiful glasses, but they will garner some appreciation for the craft and skill involved in the design.

As craft practitioners we are all aware of the arguments that abound between function and art. In Oliver Goldsmith Ltd we see the same argument played out in fashion. Andrew Oliver Goldsmith’s aim is to create ‘face jewellery for women, face furniture for men’[2] rather than something that helps their astigmatism. It’s impossible to argue under such a heritage of innovation, design and popularity that he’s succeeded. There’s no other medicinal aid that has crossed the line from purposeful to beautiful as glasses have done, whether Goldsmiths, glass or plastic did this, it’s still true.

Glasses are intimate and here we see real people wearing their choice of glasses, see how they have dated, see how much thought and skill has gone into them. A better illustration of how our opinions on glasses and those who wear them is difficult to imagine.

It’s a bold move from the National Glass Centre to exhibit a designer who uses glass but doesn’t care that much about it. Proof that their gamble has worked is in how much glass lovers can take away from ‘Spectacles’, including how vital our medium is in everyday life. The quality and longevity of these designs is fascinating and surpasses the material differences we might have.

Beyond that, ‘Spectacles’ tells us all that the National Glass Centre isn’t afraid to show us different approaches to glass. There’s no news about what the next exhibition will be, and frankly, there’s no guessing.

Spectacles- The Oliver Goldsmith Collection runs from Saturday the 18th of January to Sunday the 4th of May 2014 at the National Glass Centre, Liberty Way, Sunderland, SR6 0GL. Get involved on twitter by uploading a photograph of yourself wearing glasses and using the hashtag #bespectacular

[1] Hadley Freeman, The Meaning of Sunglasses: A Guide to Almost All Things Fashionable, published by Penguin, 2008
[2] Andrew Oliver Goldsmith’s opening remarks for the Spectacles exhibition.

Thursday, 1 May 2014


A while ago I posed a question on Twitter:

“Should critics send their reviews to their subjects for feedback before publishing?

The resounding answer was a very loud and decisive “no”. I worry that this was simply because I did not explain that I had read an essay on the subject and wanted their opinion, perhaps some were trying to stop me committing professional suicide. The essay in question ‘The only author’ was by Ursula le Guine in her collection of essays ‘Dancing on the edge of the World’. Her arguments were ultimately flawed but the reason I was intrigued was she maintained that this used to be common practice between artists and critics. I find that very difficult to believe, it seems like such a counter-intuitive move. To place an objective, outsider view before someone who could never be objective or more of an insider.

If we look at literature for a little bit, literary theory has long since dismissed the writer. What the writer means does not matter, the reading is the only thing that matters. But of course, you could be an idiot critic with a grudge on a bad day and not be objective, in which case, such a practice of sending your review or opinions to a writer before you hypothesise on them could stop needless slander or hatchet jobs. But if we pretend all critics are level-headed and relatively well educated we could dismiss the rigmarole of bothering a writer.

Hemmingway famously never offered any notes on his own writing, preferring to leave such stuff to the audience. Few writers take that tack today, with most promoting their work with lengthy and in depth interviews, articles and appearances on morning telly. Has the interview done away with the need to send a review then? We have space for a dialogue between critic and artist. I suppose the problem I have with this is that I find the interview far more interesting than the review. The review exists alone in a vacuum, un-naturally, with critics proposing possibilities of meaning, often talking as if the artist is dead “Perhaps this is a reference to…” they pontificate. Send him an email? Even if you disagree with the answer, even if you’re reading is different “He says it means x but actually I see y” is far more interesting than a séance that no one turns up to.

I’m interested in criticism for a lot of reasons, one is because in some form or another I long to teach people about my craft, and teachers are often the worst critics. They point out errors with unnerving accuracy and can usually see through bullshit at a hundred yards. Yet some go too far, rather than pointing out a problem to a student they often offer up suggestions to improve it, and this is where I part ways with most critics as well. Usually when a critic suggest a different approach for an artist I have to fight back the urge to roll my eyes. By all means, tell me why you think the plot doesn’t work, why the sculpture is unappealing or the soundtrack ruins the movie. Don’t enter some sort of make believe world where your choices can be more valid than the artist. And I’m talking to you teachers, for heavens sake don’t tell a student what can improve their work (even is we all know it would). Most art students have issues reguarding their ego and want to have full ownership of their work, you telling them how to improve their work is a sure fire way to ensure they don’t do that, ask them the questions that will get them there on their own.

Le Guine referenced a critic who had started the process of sending their reviews to their subject before publication and her feedback was that it made the whole thing more considered and accurate. While I don’t think reviewers need do this the whole time, I think both of these qualities should always be at the front of a critics mind when they write an article about someone, its their responsibility. Criticism helps everyone, discussing art is the surest way to promote it, and sometimes can help more thoughtful experiences from an audience and on rare occasions even help an artist understand how their work is received.