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Graham Caldwell: New Language in Glass

By Jessica Dawson
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, December 30, 2004; Page C05

I'd been wondering just where Graham Caldwell was headed next. For several years the young Washington artist had turned out blown-glass sculptures -- not the stuff of your mom's knickknack shop, but another species altogether: voluptuous, glossy forms shaped into sacs, tubes evoking the gastrointestinal tract, or embryos crossed with jawbones, all suspended from steel skeletons connoting meat hooks or, if your mind is so inclined, torture devices.

Caldwell's latest suite of sculptures, on view at Addison/Ripley in his solo exhibition "Slowly Growing Things," finds the artist pushing his vocabulary of form into new territory. Here, wall-mounted works extend more aggressively into three dimensions. And, to my giddy surprise, one major installation abandons glass entirely, concentrating instead on intriguing metal structures. With all this dabbling in new directions, the show feels like a wayside stop in the best sense: a respite on the road to a potentially exciting destination, a place to rest and recharge. The show's pleasures come not from its polish but from the opportunity to eavesdrop on a young artist's interior monologue as he wrestles with new ways of artmaking.

Graham Caldwell's solo exhibition at Addison/Ripley features "Soon," in which the Washington artist abandons glass entirely. (Courtesy Of Addison/Ripley Fine Art)

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Blown glass can be shaped in only so many ways, yet Caldwell has finessed a visual language that has set him apart. Caldwell could have gone the Dale Chihuly route. He could have refined his treacliest forms -- yes, he still produces teardrop-shaped works hanging in groups like a giant waterfall; a small-scale model for a commission competition, "Aquifer," hangs here to remind us -- to decorate posh restaurants and hotel lobbies.

For the most part, though, he has avoided the complacently decorative. In "Slowly Growing Things," the prevalence of sacs and stomach-shaped tubes puts us off, and the way the works are hung forces those shapes into our space. The wall-mounted forms protrude several feet off the wall or hang close to the viewer -- so much so that the gallery installed guardrails to ward us off.

This extended reach lends Caldwell's pieces more muscle and further complicates his paradoxical ideas. Trumpet-shaped forms come off jubilant yet imposing. Tentacle-like arms become at once more terrifying and more embracing.

The expansive, ceiling-hung installation "Interversalis" presents some of Caldwell's most vexing, and intriguing, paradoxes. Vaguely sausage-shaped, red glass tubes are suspended from an elaborate network of hooks and wires attached to the ceiling. The work's mechanisms are just as important, and prominent, as the glass pieces they hold. Such a display of nuts and bolts saves the fundamentally pretty glass from being simply too lovely -- an aesthete's vision of a hot-dog factory.

So what happens, then, when the glass goes? When Caldwell, a glass artist, stops using glass and leaves us with just the metal bones? "Soon" is made from rubber, steel and hardware. That's it. Though inflected with some threaded orange-colored rubber tubes, the gangly work is essentially pure structure. Absent the systems of life -- of plants, veins and entrails -- that Caldwell's glass connotes, the yin and yang of glass and metal is now simply the bony yang of steel.

"Soon" reminds me of an oversize erector set. Rectilinear groups of metal rods sprout like a mass of telephone poles in a particularly dense, multilevel city. Most of the rods rise straight up from the floor, looking like metal stands for IV drips; other bits are attached to the wall like antennae. The piece occupies a good chunk of the main gallery's real estate, then crawls up and around a corner, down a short hall and into a gallery office.

Though "Soon" doesn't shine, though its rust-orange rubber is dull and its long snaky tubes hang flaccid, the simple fact that the work occupies multiple rooms -- that it snakes down a hallway like a nosy little elf -- imbues it with a decidedly peculiar life form. I sort of miss the glass, but I think "Soon" will propel Caldwell to the next place. He hasn't quite arrived, but he's on his way to exploring systems, organizations and societies -- there's a long list of extrapolations from this new form. Turning away from glass or, at minimum, supplementing it with other materials, may prove Caldwell's surest route outward and upward.

Fine Art Miniatures

Your boss won't notice if you slip out today, will she? Just say you're grabbing a coffee and head to North Bethesda, where Strathmore Hall hosts the final hours of the 71st International Exhibition of Fine Art in Miniature today between 10 and 4. It was in the early 16th century that French monarchs became enamored with portrait miniatures and began carrying pictures of loved ones (later landscapes and history paintings, too) in pockets and lockets. By the mid-19th century, the rise of photography essentially killed the genre and relegated its practice to the margins of artmaking.

But the 284 artists at Strathmore didn't get that memo. On view are more than 700 examples of pint-size landscape, portrait, still life and a smattering of abstraction -- much of it smaller than a postcard. Framed. Though the Thomas Kinkade school of schlock dominates, some quite adept works -- David Weston's seaside scenes, Jean Cook's ewes -- shine through. But the pleasures of this show don't derive from artistic prowess; they come from the wonderment and delight of contemplating pictures of dollhouse dimensions.

Graham Caldwell: Slowly Growing Things, at Addison/Ripley Fine Art, 1670 Wisconsin Ave. NW, Tuesday-Saturday 11 a.m.-6 p.m., to Jan. 29. Holiday hours: Friday 11 a.m.-5 p.m., closed New Year's Day. 202-338-5180.

The 71st Annual International Exhibition of Fine Art in Miniature at Strathmore Hall, 10701 Rockville Pike, Bethesda, 301-530-0540, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. today.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company