THE POWER OF ILLUSION
Works in glass by Shelley James
Shelley James’s sculptural forms are based on illusion; not on the magician’s sleight of hand but on a profound understanding of how the eye and the brain work.
Profile by Corinne Julius.
THE art of Shelley James is derived from her PhD research into how the brain and visual perception work together to help us make sense (or not) of the world around us. Her works are intriguing, beguiling and disturbing. Superficially they conjure up the effects of the hall of mirrors or a 60’s disco, affording the onlooker a moment of enjoyment and other-worldliness that the adult world rarely provides. She creates “room dividers” like translucent Bridget Riley paintings, whose optical moiré effects astound and engage passers-by. The moiré interference patterns are essentially two panels of glass, each printed with slightly different frequencies of fine lines, the illusory stripes generated entirely by the viewer’s visual system. These ‘mobile rhythms invite the viewer to explore their own personal experience of time and space: each individual, literally, sees them differently’ says James. The same is
true of her glass floor panels whose distorting effects interfere with spacial orientation and upset balance with their undulating, receding and advancing forms; and her glass sculptures – cuboctahedrons, dodec ahedrons and truncated octahedrons – whose internal patterns of geometrically arranged bubbles confuse the eye. They are not pretty, witty objects with patterns made purely for amusement, but serious artworks that explore our place and relationship in the physical world using a range of studio glass processes, from traditional hot glass encapsulation, kiln-casting and lamp-working to direct printing and laser etching. She employs exacting technical precision and highly researched techniques, many of which she has developed herself. Over the past six years, she has focused her work on ‘combining the optical qualities of glass with the graphic range of print to explore the dialogue between eye and brain’. James explored these ideas during her PhD at the Royal College of Art, working with psychologists, physicians, curators and technicians. She was, she says, ‘inspired by Ruskin’s instruction to focus on the unique qualities of my chosen medium. I became fascinated by the permeable qualities of the work – the apparent suspension and multiplication of rhythms within and beyond the form, engaging in a constantly shifting dialogue with structures, people and light’. Since graduating in 2013, James has refined her ideas through collaborations with psychologists, philosophers, mathematicians and crystallographers with exhibitions including “From DNA to the Brain” at Somerset House and the “Illusions” exhibition at the Science Gallery in Dublin, as well as at the Royal Society, the Museum of the History of Science, and the Gordon Museum. It’s a long way from her youth when she was told that she wasn’t talented enough to do Art A-Level. Born in Jamaica, she was aged two when her family returned to the UK, before spending time in Nigeria and then the US. Her father was an eminent academic who specialised in Commonwealth literature. ‘It wasn’t a making family. I was left to my own devices. My escape was always making things from found materials. Today making is how I work things out.’ Her education was somewhat disrupted, but in a clear indication of her character and formidable
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