Courtesy of Erwin Timmers
Art review: 'Artists of the Washington Glass School'
By Michael O'Sullivan
Thursday, May 26, 2011
I hate myself a little bit for what I like best about "Artists of the Washington Glass School: The First 10 Years." On display at Long View Gallery, the exhibition features work by 26 of the more than 4,000 glass artists who have studied, taught or worked at the Mount Rainier-based institution over the past decade.
My guilty pleasure sits all the way in the back of the 5,000-square-foot gallery, which is one of the largest -- and loveliest -- art spaces in town. There you'll find two small sculptural works by artist Deborah Ruzinsky, mounted on pedestals in front of large glass doors that, on sunny days, suffuse the room with light. The works' titles, "Sugar Bomb #2" and "Sugar Bomb #3," are apt. Cast in green and orange glass using Jell-O molds and artillery shell casings, they're pure, explosive eye candy.
Staring at it, I feel like a monkey in front of a ball of shiny, shiny tin foil. Isn't contemporary art supposed to be ugly -- or at least less superficial?
My response to Ruzinsky's work could not have been more different than my response to several equally flashy works by Robert Wiener that greet visitors almost as soon as they've walked in the door. Mounted on the wall like abstract glass paintings, or flat, rectangular sculptures, they could pass for gaudy serving platters. Those polar-opposite responses -- attraction and revulsion -- neatly bookend a discussion of glass art today.
On the one hand, glass is pretty. It's hard not to like the way it looks: the luminous color, the way it plays with light. On the other hand, maybe glass is only pretty. How do we know that the beauty is also capable of brains?
The rest of the show is proof that it is.
You won't find a whole lot of color anywhere else in "Artists of the Washington Glass School." There are flashes here and there, but it's subtle, muted and secondary to something that the school's co-founder and co-director Tim Tate likes to call narrative. Works like Wiener's -- shiny, showy, vessel-oriented -- feel like a throwback. (Not that there's anything wrong with pretty, mind you. You might like it. And if you do, there's plenty more to be found in "Influence: 25 Years of Glass," a more traditional showcase of studio glass -- think vases -- at the Workhouse Arts Center.)
For the artists of the Washington Glass School, the embrace of glass's very materiality -- in essence, its glassiness -- is a tentative one. There are stories to be told, and glass is just one way to tell them.
Take, for example, the work of Sean Hennessey. In a manner of speaking, the artist hides large portions of his cast-glass panels (which depict light bulbs and electrical plugs in shallow bas relief) under schmears of colored concrete, effectively burying the glass in the dirt. For Hennessey -- as for his fellow artists Michael Janis, Allegra Marquart and Kirk Waldroff, all of whom are storytellers of a sort -- the medium is secondary to the message.
Still, it's impossible to ignore the medium. The sensuous properties of glass are unlike paper or paint, or anything else. Janis is a master draftsman, "drawing" on glass by sprinkling glass frit (colored glass powder) as if it were sugar. Marquart carves into thick glass panels with a sandblaster, making arrestingly bold images. And Waldroff creates impressions -- in glass -- of his own woodblock prints, two of which hang side by side with their translucent twins, which he then mounts in handmade wooden light boxes.
The material may be secondary, but it's still glass.
One of the quietest, least assuming works in the show is "Fog of Communication III" by Jeff Zimmer. A moody, fog-bound landscape, it's also mounted on a light box, and features multiple, sandwiched layers of sandblasted and enamelled glass to create something halfway between a vintage black-and-white photo and a 3D shoebox diorama. It isn't especially pretty, or even eye-catching.
But it catches -- and fires up -- something else. And that's the imagination.
The story behind 'The Three'
The largest work on view in "Artists of the Washington Glass School: The First 10 Years" is, for lack of a better word, a six-foot lamp. But it's also a monument of sorts.
Titled "The Three" -- a reference to its three-pronged, biomorphic light fixtures, which resemble exotic art nouveau flowers -- the piece is a collaboration between Elizabeth Mears, who made the lattice-like glass shades, and William Forrest, who built the delicately curving "stems" and base from a fabric-wrapped wire armature. It's a three-headed homage to the trio of co-directors who run the Washington Glass School: artists Michael Janis, Tim Tate and Erwin Timmers, each of whom also has work in the show.
Some have commented that the one-of-a-kind botanical lamp (which you can purchase for your own living room for a mere $25,000) looks like something out of the movie "Little Shop of Horrors." But the vaguely anthropomorphic thing could just as easily be read as an allusion to another example of cinematic horticulture (not to mention a tribute to the strangely powerful influence of Janis, Tate and Timmers on the art-glass scene). To my eye, it looks like one of the pod plants from "Invasion of the Body Snatchers."
-- Michael O'Sullivan (Thursday, May 26, 2011)