Dan Dailey's glassworks would look more at home in the funny papers than in the Renwick Gallery, where they'll perch through Oct. 25. The nine drawings and 42 glass sculptures, including lamps and vases, many of them caricatures, tickle the sort of grotesque humor that compels some to read the comics before they drink their coffee.
Dailey cuts, shapes, blows, sandblasts, polishes and assembles his glass sculptures beautifully, with the help of the metal craftsmanship of his wife, Linda MacNeil. And as for subject, thanks to judicious selection on behalf of Michael Monroe, who heads the Renwick, nothing in the show would completely ruin your breakfast, though I wouldn't want any of it as a centerpiece on my dinner table.
As you enter the great, soaring-ceilinged exhibition gallery, the lamp series lights up caricatures of art deco: Funny-looking fellows, fowl and fauna, stand in for the lithe ladies of the 1920s. White horns grow from a pair of "Antelope" lamps, like the masks in the pagan parades that persist in Switzerland. Hair stands on end above a pear-shaped shade atop pointy feet, leading one to think the woman lamp was electrocuted. The feet on the man lamp look the way electrical current might if you could see it. I had a strong desire to scare off the pelicans protruding from an otherwise handsome lamp.
The Vases, Not for Flowers The vases at first glance look inoffensive. (Dailey, after all, works as an independent artist/designer for Cristallerie Daum; he has designed for Herman Miller, Steuben Glass and Fenton Art Glass Co.)
The blue glass vase, "Euripides," with a raised Greek scroll is reminiscent of art moderne perfume bottles. From his science fiction series, "The Race" -- cut figures and curlicues on a black vase -- is like a Greek vase reflected in water.
Two sets of lumpy and bumpy glasses on tripods -- "Pencils and Canes" and "Etrus" -- and the single "Winter," with measles blemishing a white vase on a stand, make me uncomfortable, like that awful acne medicine ad on television.
The abstract figures of "Three Owls in Pines," a charcoal glass vase rimmed in red, recall glass of the '30s. The vases, though the designs may surprise you, at least use glass in a glassy way: to attract and reflect light.
Drawings: Outlining Life The sturdy cartoons of graphite or ink and pastel on paper have splendid wood frames fastened by metal. In "The Vase in Art," for instance, the artist with diamond (or is it magic) ring, paints a vase at arm's length. A bracelet reading "lo/art/hi" festoons an upper arm. In "Romance" a woman hungrily gulps the spaghetti offered by her male friend. Four vases with faces make wry remarks without words. "Four Abstract People Vases" please and puzzle the eye.
Caricature Constructions Several Dailey glass caricatures are toys for adults. An adept child could have made them out of a good metal or wood construction set. That the artist chose glass, often the plastic-like Vitrolite, is capricious.
Several would make good push me/pull me toys: "The Idiots," "Gift of Gab," and "Fish Out of Water." "Odd Duck" even has wheels (flat). "Hilarity" and its partner "Fatigue" are emotions in motion, yet fastened into glass. Larger works, "The Principles of Decor (a man, his wife and their furniture)," and "Nude on the Phone" (with an authentic-looking constructionist chair and a wonderful sporting man serving as Atlas for the telephone stand) seem straight out of the Sunday funnies.
Art has two faces: comic or tragic. Though neither is nobler, too many critics -- and artists -- mistakenly think art that amuses isn't serious or important. (Jamie Wyeth and his pigs suffer because of this mind-set.) In truth, too much art today makes you want to weep, either because the technique is inept and/or the subject unpleasant.
Nothing is wrong with Dailey's techniques. And I think in general, it's better to laugh than to cry. However, most of Dailey's work just makes me want to rush to the Renwick's permanent collection in the gallery across the way, there to cheer my eyes looking at glass by Dale Chihuly, Harvey Littleton or Margy Jervis and Susie Krasnican. These glassworkers understand that glass should be used to capture and transfigure light, not to make fun of it.
Either Dailey's jokes are bad or I don't get the joke.