2000 to 2009
Can it be twenty years? The past two decades have witnessed the inevitable comings and goings within the international Studio Glass scene. Many of the artists and craftspersons of the first and second generations have faded or departed. A few have focused attention on strictly commercial enterprises such as the production and marketing of unlimited editions (say what?), self-published books, videos, tee shirts, and so forth. Others—regardless of age and critical or financial success—choose to keep challenging themselves and their audience.
We have watched the cyclical rise and fall of assorted galleries and publications alongside the hardcore of stalwarts. Public and private glass museums and schools were launched with great hoopla; directors and curators were hired to brief acclaim. Inevitably, most visions of scholarly and pithy offerings are overshadowed by the scramble to sustain day-to-day operations. How many patrons underwrite the seemingly mundane, but vital needs of expanded storage and work spaces, support staffing, out-reach programs, and library acquisitions? Who has the vision to endow existing institutions with the capital that is necessary for long-term stability and growth? The result: Museums that are increasingly positioned as attractions; writing that cheerleads rather than analyzes; collections and exhibitions that are generic rather than focused and thoughtful.
The situation is neither new, nor is it confined to glass. True altruism occurs to a very special few, and as I say to my slightly disappointed Czech artist friends, “What did you expect, the Medicis?” Nevertheless, all is not gloom and doom——in fact, bright spots abound. One is the Creative Glass Center of America and its support by the Museum of American Glass and Wheaton Village.
When the CGCA was introduced it did not follow the familiar pattern of opening with a bang and then gradually petering out. Instead, over the course of twenty years of hard work, it quietly and steadily carved out an increasingly indispensable position. The CGCA earned the respect it enjoys through the nurturing of emerging artists, and perhaps more importantly, providing a revitalizing environment for mature talent.
Good intentions, however, are no guarantee of success. Has the Sisyphean project been worth it? This “20/20 Vision” anniversary exhibition provides one of several tools for assessment. The show was put together with parity. All past and present CGCA Fellows were invited to submit slides of work for consideration, and each slide was viewed by the juror (me) a minimum of four times. If the artist provided at least two pieces to select from, he or she was guaranteed a place in the show. If only a single work was submitted, I had the option of excluding the artist and that happened in less than five cases. The show is a big one because the majority of the Fellows opted to participate. Those who did not missed a chance to acknowledge an exceptional gift.
I believe that the exhibition is worthwhile. Rather than just another vanity hodgepodge designed to drag bodies into the museum and curry financial favor of lenders, this hodgepodge serves a higher purpose. It reflects the embracing spirit, and yes, generosity, of the CGCA. To be frank, not everything in the exhibition is equally good. How would it be possible with such an open format? Democracy takes the bad with the good and an artist-in-residence program incurs risk——so does extending a hand to new talents that have yet to be tried by fire. The fact that this exhibition presents an honest and essentially neutral appraisal of the Fellows speaks well of the credibility of the CGCA.
Like other overviews, the show is a snapshot of technical and stylistic trends over the past twenty years, primarily in the United States. It includes the pieces that rely solely on the optical effects of the material, the purely ornamental decorations, the intimate narratives, the macho technical feats, the sculptural vessels, the overtly functional ware, and the mixed-media works that include little if any glass. Both intelligent beauty and dumb beauty are present. The “New Italians” and a few real Italians are here, as are the flameworkers, the “cutters and gluers,” the installation makers, and those who employ just about every other technique. There are the thinkers and the feelers, the sensitive and the vulgar, those who wear their mission lightly and elegantly, and a few who take themselves a tad too seriously.
Here are the factors that make the show valuable to me: First is the opportunity to see a hefty selection of work by artists whose names are unfamiliar. Among them are the unknowns whose portfolios represented promise to the CGCA selection committee. I found some fresh and unexpected objects there. I yelped at the projected image of Takeshi Tsujino’s Window Series. It was a relief to see the goofy mug shape filled with delicate Kandinsky-style drawings hovering like fluttering invertebrates within the heavy walls. The lipless red gullet of Alison Chism’s Thing provoked another “Oh boy!” response. This thing isn’t just any old floppy bubble of colorful blown glass. All of the mystery of the sea——the ooze and the algae——is contained in one little gaping bag. Somehow it melds the sweet expression of a newborn with the alarmed mouthing of a fish gulping for air. It also displays the delicate coloration and curves of both an internal organ and a Russel Wright gravy boat. As such, it is irresistible.
The most important feature of the show for me also represents one of the foremost beauties of the CGCA——that is, the attention paid to mid-career and even more fully established artists. It is always a treat to see and wise to pay attention to anything by Hank Murta Adams, Jane Bruce, Ruth King, Kathleen Mulcahy, Sibylle Peretti, and Lino Tagliapietra. Others who have assumed their places as solid artists and craftspersons worth following closely include Scott Benefield, Robin Cass, Scott Chaseling, Benjamin Edols and Kathy Elliott, Katherine Gray, Peter Houk, Kirstie Rea, Kait Rhoads, Meza Rijsdijk, and Pamina Traylor.
I returned several times to Karen La Monte’s ghostly dress diptych. The paired images of a crushed and flattened costume——realized in low relief cast glass and as a monoprint——may be read with a jillion associations and interpretations. It brings to mind antique memorials, the tenuousness of identity, and the ever-present possibility of abandonment. The symbolism of compression and weight ties literally to the realities of the printmaking process.
Beth Lipman’s Dead Birds (after Frans Cuyck Van Myerop) is a high point of the exhibition. In addition to being visually stunning, this piece has so many other aspects to consider. Lipman has translated a highly realistic, 17th-century Flemish painting into a milk glass tableau. The restricted palette, like the original painting, is as severe as a Dutch church interior. Photo-realism is replaced by the broad gestures of a nipped and stretched, once-moving substance. The fowl hang within a funereal black border. Drained of color and freed of detail, the upended birds allude even more poignantly to the potential beauty of martyrdom and sacrifice.
More works stand out by artists whom I have long admired and I believe are still under-recognized. Stephen Paul Day is an oddity working in his own little obsessive niche. His focus is on the figure, usually a character in some kind of story that is fashioned in a style kin to both the Baroque and the end of the 19th century. Day takes his study of the human form seriously and you won’t find caricatures or shortcuts in the modeling. Here he uses brilliant opaque red glass to represent the suffering, tubercular Mimi, the fragile sparrow from La Boheme “who stole everyone’s heart.” The sculpting of her features is as roiling and romantic as the opera. Day describes the physical and metaphorical portrayal best: “Mimi was kiln-cast with an open back. When she was molten hot we inserted a series of cast birds, then ‘froze’ the piece so that the birds were partially sunk in the back. Because she is both kiln- and hot-cast, the front is opaque and the back containing the birds is transparent and shiny.” Mimi is a fine example of technique used to advance the meaning of a work rather than enslave it.
The painter Ron Desmett is also a skilled glassmaker. Instead of viewing glass as simply another canvas, he recognizes and exploits the molten bubble as the very different creature that it is. Desmett’s stumpy, lidded vessel proves the powerful sculptural potential of blown glass——a difficult and seldom successfully realized task. There is a figural quality in the neck and soft shoulders of opaque blackness. The solid shape recalls the beautiful pragmatism of cast iron and also clearly relates to Japanese-inspired 20th-century western Studio Ceramics. Glass like Desmett’s retains and projects an immediacy and expressiveness that is often lost in the firing and refiring of clay.
Susan Holland’s work is only predictable in that it is always fascinating. Fade was constructed over the course of a week by Holland and a group of assisting friends. Her sculptures often incorporate text——sometimes repeated, sometimes buried in the glass and indecipherable, but always related to the form. Holland writes that Fade is about the way eyes respond to the optical illusion of an “afterimage” (the ghostly visual trace that results from focusing on something for 30 seconds or longer, then looking at a neutral background). The inscriptions come from Goethe’s analysis of the readjustment of sight and the gradual disappearance of the afterimage: “The edge begins to be blue……the blue gradually encroaches inward……the image then becomes gradually fainter.” The words form a trompe l’oeil swirl that seems to cling to the surface and wind around the disappearing cone of glass ribbons.
Jocelyne Prince has made a continuing study of the wonder of domestic accumulations and remains. Using glass, she turns the residue of the lowly wash cloth into both a startling linear graphic and an erotic fetish. Worn thin by kneading, twisting, and rubbing on the body, the cloths are intimate and familiar. What is left of them after burning——the record of their interlocked chains and loops——floats in lacey toast shapes tangled like roots and hair.
A CGCA Fellow is awarded the precious and rare chance to step briefly into a working environment with minimal requirements. The freedom to investigate new directions without the usual burdens of survival can be chilling——for both the artist and the sponsoring organization. It requires trust and commitment on both sides. The unpredictable outcome——a glimpse of which you see here——is ultimately the joint responsibility of those who choose and those who are chosen.
While it is not a teaching institution, the CGCA has become one of the rocks that enables the genuine creative development of individuals working with glass. My hope for it is that it will challenge itself and the field even further. Perhaps by taking some inspiration from the Centre International de Recherche sur le Verre et les Arts Plastiques (CIRVA), a similar and sometimes controversial institution in France. While glass as an artistic medium is only beginning to realize its potential, much of what is known as Studio Glass has already settled into a cozy, but inbred nest. In today’s contemporary glass world it takes courage to question, to push and provoke, to ask for more and better, and to look for the truth. The CGCA makes a difference in that world and will hopefully continue to make it different.
© Susanne K. Frantz 2003