Clifford Rainey:  Head On
After decades of using glass as a medium to confront socio-political issues,
is Clifford Rainey finally starting to mellow?

by Richard Speer

While some artists exploit glass’ inherent glamour in pursuit of beauty or universal themes and others tamp it down to communicate a narrative, British artist Clifford Rainey uses glass as a vehicle for political commentary.  As such he stands among a relatively small handful of well-known artists—Silvia Levensohn, John Luebtow, perhaps early Richard Marquis—who dispatch the medium into political realms.  Freshly 60, Rainey is the subject of a retrospective at Bullseye Gallery that illuminates a career dedicated to concerns including globalization, cultural imperialism, the plight of Native Americans, and the troubles between Unionists and Nationalists in Northern Ireland.  Rainey addresses these topics with a paradoxical mixture of earnestness and high drama, levity and droll humor, drawing from a lifetime of far-flung travels around a world he is committed to bettering.  At the outset of his seventh decade, he is every bit the artist-activist he was in his youth, but instead of railing against injustices, he is increasingly apt simply to point them out with a wink—knowing full well, with the perspective of age, that he himself might be at least peripherally complicit in the wrongs he seeks to right.

Born in 1948 in Whitehead, Northern Ireland, Rainey hailed from a family of farmers and linen weavers.  As a child he made wood carvings in his maternal grandfather’s shop.  “I also loved drawing,” he recalls, “especially animals and plants— I’d go off, find some ducks and toads, and sit down and try to draw them.”  He considered becoming a veterinary surgeon but decided, against his parents’ wishes, to study art instead, becoming the first in his family to attend college.  The summer before he enrolled at Waltham Forest College in London, he took a temporary job working on a fishing troller in Iceland, an experience he credits with instilling him with a lifelong Wanderlust.  “The combination of going to Iceland and then to London—going to the opera, the British Museum, meeting people who were well read—it was as if, in a matter of months, I had this renaissance and became a different person.  I felt like my brain was going to explode.”

In the ferment of the late 1960s, ensconced in Waltham’s broadbased classical program, the young artist found himself careening between highbrow and lowbrow sensibilities, “with  Henry Moore on one side and Peter Blake, doing albums for The Beatles, on the other.”  He found himself still drawn to the natural world and created an installation called Phototropism in which he endeavored to coax pea plants to grow toward strategically placed lights.  As part of this project he blew a tubular glass form, which he subsequently cast in bronze.  While at the time he was disappointed with the installation, he continued to explore glass, spending the summer of 1971 making goblets at Kastrup and Holmegaard’s Glassworks in Nestved, Denmark.  During the course of that summer, a customer told Rainey he should return to London and study glass under Sam Herman at the Royal College of Art in London.

Rainey took the advice, began working in a more experimental vein, and embarked upon a period of intensive travel between terms, spending weeks or months at a time in Scandinavia, Africa, and the Mediterranean.  Outfitted with little more than a backpack full of poetry books, he spent half a year island-hopping and soul-searching in Greece and Turkey, transfixed by the intensity of the light, appalled by the haphazard scattering of antique pottery and statuary he observed.  On a 1976 he went on a walking tour from Nairobi to Cape Town with what he now calls the “harebrained and arrogant” idea of studying and interacting with the native populations.  As the trek progressed he became increasingly aware of, and uncomfortable with, an unavoidable strain of cultural imperialism within himself, which he has been grappling with in his work ever since:  When you are the observer, the cultural tourist, where does interest end and exploitation begin?  This train of thought intensified after he saw a 1982 Royal Academy exhibition entitled The Treasures of Ancient Nigeria, which showcased bronze heads sculpted by Benen, Nok, and Ife artisans.  The fact that many of these works had been smashed by idolatry-wary Christian missionaries made a deep impression upon him.

It was during one of his trips to Africa around this time that a symbol, now iconic in his work, came to him in a fashion that recalls the film The Gods Must Be Crazy.  Parched and wary, Rainey was in Zambia hiking in the bush when a boy emerged from the brambles, offering in his outstretched hand a Coca-Cola.  “He handed it to me, smiled, and walked away.”  Rainey commemorated the experience in a piece called Africa (date TKTK), one of the first works the viewer encounters in the Bullseye retrospective.  Incorporating the reds, greens, and blacks seen in many African flags, the piece also features a cast-glass Coca-Cola bottle and tree branch tied with a white cloth, harkening back to the artist’s Celtic heritage, in which wanderers would tie cloths to branches, alerting subsequent travelers to a spring from which to drink.  The piece quite literally tied together disparate components of Rainey’s autobiography and existential concerns into a cohesive, multi-layered sculpture, setting the tone for his career to this day.  It also began an enduring fascination with the archetypal American soft drink.

“I have a love-hate relationship with Coca-Cola,” he says.  “It brings up the issue of globalization, of course, but purely as an object, it looks a bit like an Ionic column; it has all these mathematical proportions; it even looks like a female figure...”  Rainey points this out explicitly in his Icone Fendue, which presents the Aphrodite of Melos through the framing device of the iconic bottle, and in the tongue-in-cheek Odalisque after Ingres’ famous painting of 1814.  In Rainey’s version, a Coke bottle doubles as the virgin slave reclining upon a tassled pillow, a peacock feather completing the tableau.  These works were a way for the artist to “lighten up and not be so serious all the time—although today I look at them and realize they were quite political in their own way.”  In a piece created especially for the retrospective, Rainey has created a Map of the World out of cast glass, reflecting his contention that valuable indigenous traditions are being replaced by rampant Westernization.

            Cultural desecration plays a part in a series called Erechtheum, after the temple at the Acropolis of Athens.  In the series’ title piece, a lineup of Coca-Cola bottles stands like the temple’s pillars, one of which was notoriously sawed apart and spirited off to the U.K. by Lord Elgin.  A companion piece, Caryatid, presents two female figures atop shipping crates, one marked “ATHENS” and the other “LONDON.”  But the work functions on an additional level as well:  as a tribute to a late friend of the artist’s, Elaine Mackie, who died of breast cancer in her early thirties.  This piece, along with another called Counting, is sliced in four sections, has a distressed surface, and has the breasts chipped off with carving tools, alluding not only to the scourge of breast cancer but also to Lord Elgin’s crudely patriarchal treatment of the original Caryatids and the Parthenon Marbles that have come, notoriously, to bear his name.

In a similar vein, The Man who Married the Moon (1991) recalls the Ife bronzes that made such an impression on Rainey in his formative years.  The head on the left is intact, the one on the right smashed, and between them the casting mold itself, held together with clamps.  “I know the world I live in,” he says, “and I’m always trying to mend it.  I use metal threads and binding wire and clamps to pull things together that are broken.”  In Where Do We Come From?  What Are We?  Where Are We Going?, he channels Gauguin in posing elemental human questions.  The work, completed ten years ago as the artist was turning 50, waxes fatalistic about the ages of man.  From right to left, the piece consists of an intact head modeled after Egyptian pharoahs; a head in the process of falling apart but clamped tenuously together; and a head lying on the floor, having fallen off its pedestal and lying in shards. 

            Mortification of the flesh plays into another piece in the exhibition, The Engineer, based both on the multifarious artistic treatments of the martydom of St. Sebastian and the bombings in Ireland and the U.K. as part of the Catholic-versus-Protestant violence that haunted Rainey’s homeland throughout his life.  “It’s about people being blown up,” he says of the human figure sliced through with glass planes, an image of great violence but also of geometric beauty.  In Prism, he expresses his outrage against the atrocities rained down upon Native Americans by white conquerors.  In the work, a glass wedge is being wrenched out of the solar plexus of a Native American figure, upon whose shoulder rests a coyote skull.  This prism is illuminated by intense halogen light, emblematic of the artist’s own agenda:  illumination of injustice, examination of what has been stolen, and some manner of assuagement for that which cannot be assuaged.

            White Bison is a casting of an American buffalo skull he found on a trip to Idaho.  He presents it as “a floating ghost” and places behind it a black-and-cobalt drawing of a Viking longboat.  Hauntingly, the piece contrasts “Christopher Columbus coming over, supposedly bringing enlightenment, with the people who came long before Columbus and left no footprint.”  From the oppression of a people, the artist turns to the extinction of entire species in the chilling Cry Nature Wolf.  Sixteen cast-glass wolf skulls sit on clear platters, a rechargeable battery beneath each, such that the skulls dim and ultimately go dark as the viewer walks through the exhibition.  sculptures are lit, but one by one (and sometimes more than one at a time) dim as the day continues, eventually going out.

Reacting to the harrowing piece as he walks through Bullseye’s cavernous second-floor gallery, Rainey confesses that “...this show kind of floored me in a way—I got really depressed when I saw it, because I hadn’t realized so much of my work was so dark and moody and brooding.  It’s made me realize that when I was in my 30s and 40s, I really tried to give the work a political charge.  In those days it was in your face.  Nowadays I don’t like people preaching at me, so I don’t preach to them.  The work’s meant to be more gentle and get the same concerns across, but in a more subtle way.”


        There is a certain agreeable irony in this, given the remarkable series called Art Committee, which features twelve magnum-sized cast-glass penises atop a background of shiny black rubber.  Subtle it is not.  Art Committee is Rainey’s response to controversy surrounding a different series, Boyhood, in which the artist reflects on the preoccupations of his own youth:  biology, horticulture, history, and art.  The works, which owe a debt to the Kritios Boy (circa 480 BC), show ephebic torsos filled with mementos (one torso is engraved with the Latin names of 200 plant species, while another, Philosophical Boy, has a broken apple inside, a reference both to the apple given by every good schoolboy to his teacher and to the Biblical apple given Adam by Eve).  In the United States, Rainey says, the works provoked outrage of various degrees.  “I got criticized for using a young boy with a penis—people were saying it was pedophilic!  I thought we were enlightened today.  I thought the days of putting fig leaves on people were over.”

            One piece in the series, The Water Table, was commissioned by the San Francisco Art Commission and, after much bureaucratic hand-wringing, placed in the 911 dispatch headquarters of the city’s police department.  The sculpture incorporated water trickling down a chain, reflecting the city’s water conservation agenda, however, Rainey claims the piece was vandalized by city employees who misconstrued the chain as an endorsement of slavery and viewed the Greek-inspired torso as an allusion to pederasty.  His response, then, was his tic-tac-toe board of phalluses writ large, a mischievous riposte to those who had questioned his character and toppled his artistic children.

            The Bullseye retrospective comes at what feels like an auspicious time for Rainey.  He has at last achieved a measure of financial success of which he could scarcely have dreamed as a young man.  As chair of the glass program at California College of the Arts, he enjoys the rewards of administering and teaching.  Still, he says he yearns for a better balance between his roles as educator and practicing artist.  He has bought land in the Bay Area on which he hopes eventually to build a live-work space.  He also hopes to be able to live with his work—observe and adjust it—for longer periods of time before shipping it off to eager, deadline-conscious galleries across the world.  Finally, he desperately wants to make art that is relevant to our times, reverent to the earth beneath us, and respectful of for humankind’s foibles, his own included.  “Today it’s so easy to be a hypocrite,” he says as our interview concludes.  “We’re so conscious of our carbon footprint.  I myself am making work about ecology and globalization, but of course there’s the dilemma that I’m working in cast glass, which makes a huge footprint...  So there’s a quandary between trying to make a living and the capitalism that’s a part of that, which I used to be totally opposed to.  All of a sudden, there’s the danger of becoming a person you didn’t want to be.”


—A contributing critic for ARTnews and contributing editor at Art Ltd., Richard Speer is the author of Matt Lamb: The Art of Success (John Wiley & Sons) and is visual arts critic at Willamette Week, the Pulitzer Prize-winning alternative weekly in Portland, Oregon.

(All photos courtesy Bullseye Gallery)