Bertil Vallien loves stories, from local folklore and international news to history and religion. He consumes stories, churns them around in his imagination, layers in personal influences and interpretations, then releases this amalgam of inspiration in glass form. Vallien is a builder, thoughtfully constructing both the physical materials and the narrative content of each piece of art. Different themes, symbols, and characters populate his work, but one common thread is Vallien’s interest in the innate dualities of life—hot and cold, light and dark, internal and external, life and death, to name a few. This dichotomy is tangibly expressed in the process of hot molten glass being manipulated then suspended in final frozen stillness and further highlighted by Vallien’s technique of casting glass in molds and placing objects within the glass.
Vallien is known as a pioneer in the use of the sand-casting technique in glass, which he originally learned in an industrial capacity before developing it for use in fine art. The Swedish artist’s early training in clay brought him to Los Angeles to work in a small ceramics company; his budding interest in glass at the time collided fortuitously with a revolution in American Studio Glass in which glass makers were encouraged to create art inspired by their own intrinsic ideas and passions. Returning to Sweden, Vallien spent many years working for Kosta Boda as a designer but, pulled by the promise of artistic freedom, he gradually began dividing his time between commercial work and creative pursuits. He has not only contributed indelibly to the expansion of glass as a medium, but he has told the world stories that might have otherwise remained unwritten.
Several works center on the theme of the boat, an apt metaphor for the journey through and beyond life. Vallien says “I like fantasies and stories and the boat, of course, is a wonderful archetype that everybody can relate to. The hull is the only thing that protects what is inside from the lethal waters.” Yet, Vallien’s boats really have no hull at all. Inside and outside merge into one as the marine blue and earthy brown shape seems made from water itself, stilled into canoe-like form. The petrified objects encased within serve as clues about whomever sought safe passage within her. Human figures, crosses, and circle symbols lend a spiritual undercurrent to these works, which Vallien has called “dreams of an eternal life.”
Boat, 2019, Cast glass, 3.5 x 43.75 x 4.5"
Over the years, Vallien has worked a series he calls Area II. Area II is an imaginary zone (to get a sense of it, see the landscape made from glass in the work entitled Map) discovered in the future and struck by either freezing cold or destructive fire (there is that duality again). The idea for The Watcher began as small figurative inclusions in works in the Area II series, then emerged as if from an archaeological dig to become powerful hybrid land-figures which caused these catastrophic events. Heads rise pharaoh-like from earthly bondage, cryptic clues suspended within the blue glass body. Rough edges meet smoothly polished surfaces, protruding bubbles sit upon etched lines, different surface treatments eliciting complex emotional responses.
A detail of Map, 2018 Sand cast glass 20 x 17 x 2.75"
Detailed planning, textural nuance, elaborate narrative, and the intelligent play of contrasts define Vallien’s work, as exemplified in the Landscape works. Layers—both physical and psychological—are created through a multi step process. Surface textures result from the imprint of objects placed on the walls of the mold, which are also dusted with powdered metal oxides to release color. As the molten glass is poured into the mold, Vallien incorporates a variety of objects from sheet metal and glass threads, to figures and other colored forms.
Landscape, 2019, Sand cast glass, 8 x 5.7 x 5.7"
This master of duality offers a contra point to his intricate cast pieces with new works called Super Eggs. Vallien says that he sat down with his casting crew one day and said: “no casting today, let’s blow, let’s show what the human breath can do with glass.” The result is the most natural form glass can make, a bubble, expanded to the limits of fragility and lightness.
Confucius said “yin and yang, male and female, strong and weak, rigid and tender, heaven and earth, light and darkness, thunder and lightning, cold and warmth, good and evil…the interplay of opposite principles constitutes the universe.” That the same artist could conceive and execute such seemingly disparate works—from the thoughtful and weighty Landscapes to the spontaneous and diaphanous Super Eggs — may seem counter intuitive. In fact, this is the mark of an artist who truly relishes in the range of his material and who continues to explore the universal dualities of life and glass.
Super Egg, 2019, Blown glass, 20 x 14.25 x 14.25"