The Crystal Chain Gang

The Crystal Chain Gang -Fancy Fool's Flight Decades ago, at about this time of year, guests might be welcomed with a slice of Christmas cake and glass of wine from a crystal decanter - a potent symbol of well-heeled hospitality. Many people still have these objects, often inherited from family, but they are usually sitting empty in the back of cabinets rather than in active use. The lead crystal decanter, its form and history, was the starting point for the centre piece of an exhibition by Martinborough glass artists Leanne Williams and Jim Dennison, aka The Crystal Chain Gang. 'Fancy Fool's Flight' features a spectacular cluster of 15 lead crystal decanters topped with eccentric cast glass stoppers, on a table which is also flamboyantly crafted. "We were interested in glass decanters in people's homes, which 90% of the time are sculptural things rather than being in use," says Leanne. Jim and Leanne find utilitarian glass forms like chandeliers and vessels offer rich pickings for creative transformations - their chandeliers featuring cast glass budgies are well known, and they recently completed a chandelier for a corporate setting spanning over four metres. They started thinking about the decanters as purely sculptural objects: "The spirits inside became like a genie in a bottle, and the stopper related to the spirit captured inside," says Leanne. The stoppers feature native birds and colonial references such as Captain Cook, King Edwards and Queen Elizabeth, evoking memory from the historic domestic sphere, associations of past plunder and excess, and the act of collecting. The couple gathered old decanters and many other found objects, making moulds from them and manipulating scale and details to suit their purposes. In some cases, the stoppers have started life as intricate wax carvings by Leanne, from which moulds are the made. Hot glass is poured into the mould, melting the wax. The glass, when hardened, takes on the form and details of the original wax carving. The laborious nature of casting glass gave rise to the couple's working name: "We liken it to being on the chain gang [because it's] very repetitious and at times very unrewarding." They have been collaborating as the 'Chain Gang' since 2002, with other artists and technicians joining them periodically at their Martinborough production base. They both studied in Wanganui, the North Island's 'art glass' capital, and Leanne has a fine arts background in painting, while Jim is a glassmaker and technical expert. "We have different skills that compliment our practice and make it into a dynamic form...we make glass objects that are unique, stir memory, are excessive, exotic and speak of a sense of place." The exhibition has appropriately come full circle back to Wairarapa, after showings at the Sargeant, Suter and Pataka galleries over the past year. It also features a range of other lead crystal works made in the past five years, including 'Polly', a skull covered with budgie heads. Currently showing at Aratoi: The Crystal Chain Gang: Fancy Fool's Flight, until 17 March; Additions: Recent acquisitions to the collection, until 15 March; Bridget Reweti - What are you looking at?, until 1 Feb. The title piece of Leanne Williams and Jim Dennison's show 'Fancy Fool's Flight