Everything in Its Place

Steffen Dam, in sole works and a new collaboration with his wife, artist Micha Karlslund, searches for beautiful truths.

Contributing editor, JOHN DRURY is a New York City-based artist, writer, teacher and curator.

In the studio and in his work, Danish artist Steffen Dam seeks the “perfect day,” when mind and body are united in a seamless pursuit of transcendence. “And this is basically the headline in my life: I’m waiting for the epiphany,” he said in an email interview with GLASS.

Dam’s cabinets, blocks, and cylinders are attempts to describe, in visual language, the beauty inherent in organic form and the human effort to understand it. His alchemical creations reference nature, yet derive from a fastidious technical skill married to an appreciation for the unexpected results of chance. Suspended in clear glass like specimens, his organisms seem delicate, graceful, and chimeric, much like our desire to classify and organize our world. Dam’s true subject is unknowability itself, and the beauty of trying. He hopes his cabinets of curiosities and cylindrical beakers, as well as the recent decorated-vessel collaborations with his wife, will induce the magical and joyful feeling of not believing your own eyes, both honoring the quest for complete understanding and acknowledging its impossibility.

“The epiphany happens now and then. Out of the blue, things fall into the right position, and I know how to get on for a while,” he writes. “But for the majority of hours, the image is blurred.”

Dam trained as a toolmaker, where absolute precision is needed, but the pursuit of perfection was not enough. He’s always been a passionate gardener, and it is there he turns for a metaphor for his quest, naming the compost heap as his source. His technical processes are not completely revealed, but he offers this about his biological forms: They are “based on years of practice in how to destroy a leaf of silver and how to use a welding torch as a spray gun.” A conversation with Dam reveals an artist infatuated with the intoxicating duet between control and surprise.

“This doesn’t mean that I don’t know what I’m doing. Quite the contrary – I master the process, but the minor detail is often decided by chance,” he says. His work is a fertile blend of chemical reactions and happy accidents. “I once knew a conductor. He could sit in his sofa with a [score] and hear the full symphony. I wish I could do that. I can read technical drawings.” But technical drawing can be a kind of music, so Dam concludes: “I’m the conductor of chance.”

Patterns repeat in music as in nature. The fact that the same shapes occur in the micro- as well as the macrocosm inspired Flower Block, his 2012 work, a Corning Museum of Glass Rakow Commission. As an artist, Dam transcends boundaries, navigating the worlds of art, craft, and design. He is allied with the technical quest that underlies the half-century of Studio Glass, yet also represents an anomaly of sorts, avoiding brash hues or burden-some technicalities.

Dam’s aesthetic is Scandinavian in its understated refinement. His works are included in the collections of the Museum of Art and Design in New York, the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe in Hamburg, and the Danish Museum of Decorative Art in Copenhagen.
Repetition plays a major role in his works, with repeated acts an avenue to exploration and a glassmaking practice. And Dam is nothing if not thorough, a personality trait. He understands the centrality of craft in glass and is acutely aware of its energy-intensive process. He strives for greener production methods, tracking his energy usage scrupulously, employing thermal insulation on his furnaces, and working with smaller infrastructure in an effort to minimize the impact of his practice. He is protective of the natural world that is his inspiration, and his love for the practice of gardening is undimmed.

Dam celebrates the unregulated nature of the garden, where unknown factors are as relevant to the outcome as planting, maintaining, and harvesting. Here he is reminded of the fertility of waste, reuse, and regeneration. He recently had the opportunity to embark on a new body of work that recasts his quest for three-dimensional form and allowed him to collaborate with his wife, artist Micha Karlslund, with whom he has worked side by side in the studio for over two decades, but had never collaborated with. Karlslund is a multimedia artist who began by working exclusively in glass but then expanded into painting and collage. Her approach to the material is more painterly but is also inspired by nature in general, and plants in particular.

Invited to the artist residency program “Fuel Their Fire” at the Tacoma Museum of Glass in 2016, Dam and Karlslund decided to expand on the idea of vessel-as-canvas that she had been working on for some years. They decided on applied imagery as the best means for their respective practices to fuse. As the project progressed, each also made their own individually signed cylinders. Darn says, “We developed the technique and method together but made individual pieces. We ended up signing them either Micha or Steffen and then putting Dam & Karlslund under our names.” Micha added layers of enamel by brush; Dam found a solution in transparency, with collage inside and out.

What first appears to be a change of direction for Dam, from three-dimensional models to two-dimensional portrayals, is really not that great a leap. He still shows an interest in seriality and a preference for the grid as a presentation device. Coming ashore and above ground, so to speak Steffen recognizes the vulnerability in exhibiting something new, but has an ability to roll with the punches: “I believe the progression is in the direction of thicker skin.” At first glance, the collaborative work is quite different in appearance from what we have come to expect from Dam alone, but it still shows a search for order in which placement is largely dictated by a grid system. In collaboration, of course, there is a need for malleability, for give and take. The method meant a large adjustment in Dam’s comfort zone, in which decisions are made through a relationship with the material and the moment.

The duo soon found the project needed far more preparation than they had expected. “When we started, we knew very little about making decals, screen printing, and all the chemicals, materials, and the theory behind it,” Karlslund wrote in an email exchange with GLASS. “We spent months and months learning the technique while we also made collages, sketches, Photoshops, and drawings to figure out what the finished pieces should look like.”

The images came along in their suitcases. Steffen says: “The technical obstacles were substantial, and they almost killed the project. But one good thing about over 30 years with glass is that we know that finally we’ll crack the problems. Presently, we are very sharp on how to pick up a heavy piece of glass carrying weeks of printing from the annealer and flash it in the glory hole. Being an artist working in a nonverbal way, the deciphering of the visual impact is crucial. And this is where Micha and I working in parallel makes perfect sense.”

These cylinders display a greater use of color. The chromatic variety is still masterful and cohesive, but feels purposefully expanded, shying away from Dam’s earth tones. The color seems a refreshed means for exploration; it certainly belies a deeper assessment of the wonders of life. According to Dam, “the cylinders describe things happening according to the general structure of everything.” Each vessel, of course, is clean, precisely blown, orderly, but the images are a surrealist hodgepodge, balanced at the edge of nonsense, akin to Dada—photo-booth-like images of a motorcycle, the construction of a dirigible, a strip of pig illustrations—against a canvas of ghostly, lunar oil-white that allows for a dash of the otherworldly. They evoke a stream of thought without beginning or end—and in the round. We are invited to jump in at any given point.

Karlslund elaborates: “The interesting thing about working with the cylinder as canvas is that the piece can only be experienced by moving around it, and even then you never get the whole picture in one look. It offers other challenges than an ‘ordinary’ picture. You experience the piece with an expectation of what will meet your eye around the corner, and bearing in memory what you just saw. Due to the transparency of the glass, the images on the inside shine through to the outside and vice versa, resulting in a flickering collage, a variation between the visible and the hidden— a cyclic film running in a loop.”

While the works that we have come to associate with Dam are largely intuitively built (a gentle balance between fiction and reality), here we have a predetermined set of images—purposefully chosen, then combined and transferred to the surface of glass cylinders . While remaining somewhat diagrammatic – nearly scientific and formerly placed – the new work is increasingly pictorial in a traditional sense. With recognizable and paired imagery, there is a natural inclination to search for a cohesive “story line”. I’d wondered if the two had arrived at the Museum residency prepared to juxtapose particular images, or whether their combinations and placement had been more serendipitous. Dam clarifies: “All the pieces made at the museum were prepared from home except for one piece that it now actually going to the museum. That piece was kind of ‘off the cuff,’ as you say. Sometimes you’re lucky.”

Karlslund adds, “The vessel as a carrier of images goes back to the ancient Greeks – with spear-throwing, muscular youths – and continues through history to the wild vases of Grayson Perry.” She notes, “I see my picture vases as poetic statements about being. I use whatever is at hand: my family, my life, the nature that surrounds me, things I see on TV or the internet. I take photographs and make drawings. I try to seize and comprehend this messy life we’re all trying to handle. It’s an existential project.”

The stuff of Dam’s life is depicted in these collaborative works as a sort of reportage on recognizable things, places, and persons. Travel, or at least mobility, is common thread in the imagery; wanderlust expressed in simple reverence for historical discovery and peoples. Dam seems to have a bad case of armchair travelling: “The cylinder called The Traveler is actually about me wishing to enjoy travelling. And yes, in my vocabulary there is a bit of longing for times when science could be done with a shotgun, a shovel and a bucket. Looking at technical drawings from the beginning of last century, it’s my impression that they are made to communicate as clearly as possible. The ‘neutral man,’ for example, who represents you and me on several cylinders, is – even though he has no skin on his face – looking at you with kindness and interest.”

And it is this viewer’s pleasure to return the gaze, a connection across cultures and time, in the shared search for knowledge that makes us human.