Angela Steel: Knots

March 2012

Publication: The Times

Glass artist and painter Angela Steel, who is based in Beith, Ayrshire, has created an extraordinarily powerful series of illuminated stained glass panels taking as her starting point the tormented childhood of a fictional girl.


Steel comments that “… [the girl] has been incarcerated and is resisting whatever treatment she has been subjected to. Alone in the cell on the medical table with the leather restraints, she screams out the imagery of her childhood, resisting the change which adulthood bestows upon her.”


The imagery of these seven stained-glass panels (and an additional series of drawings and etched glass pieces) is reminiscent of a Gothic novel: wolves, ravens, deer (both disembowelled and living), heraldic devices and catacombs filled with skeletal remains.


In the second panel, ‘Realm of Paths’, Steel makes the literary parallels explicit because the predominant motif is a book.  The dark and dense forest appears to grow directly from its pages. It is perhaps too obvious a link but the writing of Angela Carter seems to have a direct connection in this context. But it is with the work of glass artists Ann Wolff and Irene Frolic that the closest parallels may be found.


However, Steel inhabits an artistic territory all of her own. The allure of her work derives from the tension between the religious associations of the medium and her unconventional and disturbing imagery.


Steel employs centuries-old, labour-intensive techniques where traditional craft is used in the service of contemporary art.  Each piece of glass is joined to another by traditional leading while images are created by removing a matt of vitreous enamel from the glass using a brush or other implement.


As is the case with most powerful works of imagination elements of reality underpin the fantasy. In this case Steel’s trigger was a dilapidated and burnt-out former children’s’ asylum near her Ayrshire home. The incandescent mansion makes an appearance in the fourth panel, entitled  ‘Beacon’; elsewhere other panels are replete with the iconography of the institutional home – wire-framed dormitory beds, model aircraft and toys of all descriptions.


But elsewhere there is the sinister foreboding presence of clandestine surgery and medical experimentation – a fact that the artist herself makes explicit in a reference to Birkenau in one of her interpretative text panels.


There is nothing coherent about these narratives. In creating them, the artist seems to be starting almost in the middle of a troubled and complex sentence. This is where the viewer must also start: in the midst of a disturbing and complex narrative with no other logic than that of the nightmare with which to disentangle these deeply unsettling images.