Fredrik Nielsen: the artist who breaks the rules of glass art

The path to crafting may vary. Sometimes it is inherited over generations; sometimes it is triggered by a chance encounter with a master craftsman. For artist Fredrik Nielsen, it was sparked by the 1985 Swedish coming-of-age film my dog ​​life.

It follows Ingemar, the troubled young protagonist, who is sent away from his dying mother to live with his aunt and uncle in the province of Småland, home to Glasriket (“the kingdom of crystal”), the glassmaking capital of Sweden. . “It’s a really cute movie,” Nielsen says. “Life is very simple; guys are working in the hot shop, women are packing the glass. This little boy’s mother is sick and then dies, so he descends into this realm of glass, where the fire is warm and safe. This film made me think of glass.

Portrait of Fredrik Nielsen in his glassblowing workshop, Garage Stockholm

But unlike the centuries-old glassworks Orrefors and Kosta Boda in Glasriket, Nielsen is in the business of subversion: transforming an ancient craft into something decidedly contemporary. Born in Linköping, Sweden in 1977, he was first drawn to the study of glass when his mother brought home an amphora vase. He remembers: “It was not art. It was cast porcelain, but it was super yellow [on the outside] and white inside, and it had a volume of half your upper body. I was maybe 13 or 14 years old, when you’re not so interested in amphorae vases, but it spoke to me. This volume!’

In 1998 Nielsen began his training at Orrefors Glass School, then at the Pilchuck Glass School in Stanwood, Washington, and returned to study at the Royal Institute of Art in Stockholm. During the quarter of a century which has passed since, he has pushed the art of glass to its extreme extremes. Nielsen’s studio is located at Garage Stockholm, a former boiler room turned glassblowing workshop in Årsta, founded by Nielsen and Patrick Hällbom in 2015 as a hub of radical creativity. Sandwiched between train tracks and a garbage truck depot, with a neon-covered barricade to “keep out burglars,” there may be more salubrious places to set up a studio, but it works for Nielsen.

“When people walk in here, there’s no doubt which studio it is,” he says on Zoom, as he shows me around the studio and adjoining apartment, where the glass sculptures are in various stages of completion and her phone number is spray painted in neon pink on every available surface: walls, floors, fridge, shower, stereo, cables, CDs, buckets, loudspeakers, individual car doors. Little has escaped the clutches of Nielsen’s distinct signature. “If I did this at home, there would be a divorce,” he laughs.

Textile with Nielsen spray painted neon pink phone number +46708420971

So what is the phone number? “I’m the worst graffiti artist,” he says. “I was really bad at painting water lilies and I thought my phone number was the least wacky.

“It’s like a pop culture reference, like the way I grew up on MTV, like a rock video. It’s my own world. If people hated my glassware, they might think it’s was cool that I painted the piece. This pattern is not only present in every conceivable space in his studio, he also includes it in every piece of glassware he creates. Sometimes it’s readable, sometimes it’s c is buried under layers and layers of glass.

With Nielsen, every phrase brings a new cultural reference, from the ad-lib approaches of jazz musicians Keith Jarrett and Miles Davis to the physicality of Damien Hirst, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Anne Imhof, all of whom feel somehow integrated into the multiple layers of his work. The making process is part science, part performance, and part excavation, and it is always accompanied by music (the same music that forms the soundtrack of the artist’s exhibits); there are no sketches or preparatory drawings for fear of “disappointment”. Nielsen savors the unpredictability of what his work can become. “It’s better for me to jam as I go,” he says.

A blown glass sculpture that Nielsen created in May this year, set against a backdrop of car doors, lockers and spray-painted floors

Nielsen speaks of glassmaking as an addiction, drawn to her craft like a butterfly to a flame: its speed, its danger, its intuitiveness and its immediacy. “Glass is my racing car, my amplifier, the only thing I know how to do,” he says. “It’s the fastest material in the world for carving. When blowing glass, it can be done an hour later. When it’s hot, the volume, the body, the shape is very strong. When it gets cold, it’s just glass with colors, and you want to start making another sculpture again, go back to the honeymoon.

But despite its extreme speed, glass offers a surprising flexibility, which Nielsen likens to the work of a painter. Its parts – which can weigh more than 50 kg – are often laminated or coated with body paint, left to cool in an annealer, then reheated with a blowtorch and “glued” to other parts. This is where Nielsen’s innovation lies, in its ability to treat its glassworks as evolving organisms. The resulting pieces burst with energy; a collision of varying surfaces and vibrant strokes of paint are preserved like creatures in amber.

When the Zoom tour enters the hot shop, Nielsen points to a particular sculpture. “I gave part of it to my dad in 1999, and he broke it. It’s the same chemistry and viscosity, so I could warm it up for this new part and add more,” he says. .

The trio of glass pieces that make up Mixed emotionsNielsen’s installation for the Loewe Foundation Craft Prize 2022, exhibited at the Seoul Museum of Craft Art in July. Photography: Harriet Lloyd-Smith

“I use the glassblowing pipe more like a broom. Now, when I look at the glass kiln, I no longer feel like a boy scout, of needing to do it “right”. But despite Nielsen’s rebellious approach to glassmaking, there remains a sense of needing to know the rules before breaking them. “It’s something that goes back to the craft – if you blow glass the wrong way, you can’t really do it,” he says.

As a testament to his innovative take on glassware, Nielsen was chosen as one of 30 finalists for the 2022 Loewe Foundation Craft Prize, presented at a group exhibition at the Seoul Museum of Craft Art in July. Despite their varying material palettes (including ceramic, leather and horsehair), the finalists shared a meticulous dedication to their chosen craft and a penchant for experimentation. Aesthetically, however, Nielsen’s work stood out like ice in an oven.

His installation, titled Mixed emotions, made up of a trio of glass pieces presented on aluminum pallets, the kind you might find in a warehouse, with neon “skylines” of different colors placed behind each. “It’s a bit of a cold way to present them, but I like that they reflect off the surface and the neon. The viewer can walk in and look at the objects and activate them themselves.

Glue it together silver looks more like a colossal piece of fool’s gold than glass. On closer inspection, gaps in the baked aluminum surface offer windows into a bright yellow interior, where, deep inside, Nielsen has hidden his phone number.

Another, titled You’re not the only one, contains 36 pre-heated blue color bars (used to add color to glass), though they are hard to discern beneath the fractured, cellophane-like crumpled surface. “It was like inviting the devil into your process because it’s really heavy,” he says. “This piece has been redone five or six times and had to cool for 15 days in order not to break.”

Jonathan Anderson, creative director of Loewe and member of the Craft Prize jury, applauds Nielsen’s work for representing “a new direction in glassmaking”. Using traditional glassblowing techniques but combining them with unexpected materials, his work is surprising and radical.”

Top: Nielsen in his glassblowing studio. Above: close-up of a blown and cast glass sculpture

Although Nielsen’s glassmaking is steeped in centuries-old tradition and formal training, he is no servant of his craft. He respects her and collaborates with her, but he also renames her for a new generation. “This is what craftsmen are faced with. You cannot erase the intelligence of your hand, and you cannot erase your personality.

Glass is often admired more for its technical prowess and inherent beauty than for its design potential. It is not often that it is pronounced in the same sentence as concept art. But the same could have been said for textiles and ceramics before the arrival of Anni Albers or Peter Voulkos, and look at them now. “The art world now envies the craft world; they have all the tools. The craft world envies the art world because it wants to be cool, with ideas! said Nielsen. “I think it’s important to go out and play, and the rest will take care of itself.”

Fredrik Nielsen is redefining glass art in real time – what it is, what it isn’t, who sets the rules and who can break them. It’s glass, but not as we know it. Here it is shattered, distorted and manipulated to the point where a once transparent material has become opaque with the history of its process. With his studio, his influences – as varied as the surfaces of his work – and his distinct approach to an age-old craft, Nielsen seems to be shaping his own crystal kingdom, fit for a new age. §

work the door (2022) in blown and cast glass

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