To walk into the Renwick Gallery's site-specific show "Glassworks" is to feel like a character in a rerun of "The Avengers."
For some the only sane reaction is to run and hide lest the installation get you. Seven rooms -- tall, tall rooms -- are filled with glass, of one sort or another. Each is a single artist's vision, built on the premises.
This is environmental art -- art that wraps -- or traps -- viewers and rubs their eyes in a familiar material to make them see in a strange and sometimes frightening way. What is the good of it? Many will be repelled, none will be bored.
Prospective viewers of the Renwick exhibit should see Mark McDonnell's "Flight Lessons" right off, lest they despair after the terror and the chaos of other works.
McDonnell's materials and methods are simple and sane. His work is primarily of 4,000 to 5,000 clear glass blocks, the great building material of the art moderne period. He piles them up neatly, mostly in easily understandable parallel walls, with pyramidal tops. Occasionally the blocks rebel and surge forth into a bay. Here and there, he leaves a block out to put in an exquisite arrangement of blown glass spirals, like a flourishing plant delighting in the lighting. The glass blocks reflect and multiply the light, making a castle in which to rejoice.
This brilliant fortification against the dark is especially interesting since it is set in an 18-by-64-foot double gallery with 25-foot ceilings, pilasters and columns, dados and other delights. McDonnell heads the glass department at California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland. Earlier, he made a maze of glass blocks for Pittsburgh Corning Corp., which, understandably, "made this installation possible."
Ginny Ruffner's installation is in several not really related sections. Paintings protesting Botticelli's view of the Annunciation of the Virgin on canvas and smashed glass male and female torsos are but background. The star is a metal frame, shaped like a tornado funnel that swooshes out through the room. From the tornado are hung glass tears or molten glass drips that catch the light and glow. Ruffner, an instructor at Pilchuck Glass Center in Stanwood, Wash., is president of the Glass Art Society.
William Morris's "Garnering" looks like the fabled elephant graveyard. The tusks and dinosaur eggs, however, are blown or cast glass, though he adds bone and gut. He has called his glass objects "artifacts" because he sees a resemblance between glass and fossils. Morris also teaches at Pilchuck.
After these exhibits, proceed at your own risk.
Richard Harned, associate art professor at Ohio State University, claims his "Eccentric Vision" is in some places user-friendly, but everybody knows the threat in the phrase. He menaces the viewer with television monitors, camera lenses, light bulbs, telephone, propane tanks, telefaxes, mechanized geometric metal structures -- a dome supported on columns and linked by metal connectors to diversely painted globes of the world, a sandbox and two original Renwick chairs upholstered in green velvet. All is in a room 16 feet high, 25 feet wide and 45 feet long. It may not be big enough for you and It.
The lights, carefully adjusted by Harned (all the artists did their own lighting) cast shadows like growing things on the wall. Viewers can see themselves on the monitor screens, fresh or frozen. Watch out! Harned can beam in himself, or show pictures from his January exhibit at the Wexner Center in Columbus, Ohio.
Bruce Chao, head of the Rhode Island School of Design glass program, calls his "The Window Piece," and rightly so. He built two walls, roughly 25 feet high, 30 feet wide and 32 feet long. The wood-framed glass windows, affixed to metal supports, look as though they were from an abandoned factory. Some windows have been smeared with paint to look dirty. They do. A door leads through.
The Renwick's own tall windows of clear, well-polished glass, facing south to the wedding cake architecture of the Old Executive Office Building, are a relief.
Therman Statom's "Washington, D.C., Installation," (16 by 25 by 45 feet) is made of basics: glass and paint. He once said he would rather work with ice, but not in the Arctic Circle. Statom builds glass boxes, vertical telephone booths, horizontal coffins and chairs that are both up and sideways. One wall is made of square boxes, individually painted. He says he uses the glass "like canvas, except it's got more sensibility." The paint is wild in color, chaotic in form.
To Michael Monroe, the innovative curator in charge, the room is "like being inside an abstract painting." The environment does have a "let's get drunk and sling the paint around" air that can be charming, depending on the viewer's sobriety. Statom, who once lived in Washington, now has a studio in Los Angeles.
Judith Schaechter's work doesn't have a title, but if it did, it would be a scream. Set into her 16-by-18-by-19-foot room covered with gold foil wallpaper are metal windows, not so much stained as poisoned. Though they are meant to look like old stained glass, they are actually stained glass and reverse painted glass with leading and rolled foil. Each of the four panels is devoted to a category of "disaster": a flood, a man sitting on a garbage pile, a rape and an arson. They are horrible, horrible to see. The memory revolts at their images.
Schaechter, who works in her Philadelphia studio, once said she is attracted to "disturbing" scenes -- she is one with people who look closely at car wrecks. But she denies making gratuitous affronts. "Why deal with a topic that people can deal with already?"
"Glassworks" is sponsored in part by the James Renwick Alliance. The show is the antithesis to the mid-19th-century Renwick building with its mansard roof and tall thin windows. Monroe likes to point to the etching on the glass front doors, "marking the change between in and out." "Glassworks" represents a far different aesthetic but too true a reflection of art and life of the late 20th century.
Monroe explains that the studio glass movement, which began in the 1960s, "has been dominated by small-scale objects ... produced by such hot glass working techniques as glass-blowing and casting." The works "showcase not only the inherent beauties of the medium but also the technical prowess of the artist." Five of the artists in the Renwick show -- McDonnell, Ruffner, Morris, Statom and Schaechter -- all have individual objects in the Corning Museum in New York.
In contrast, the seven participating artists in this show, Monroe says, "have pushed glass firmly into the realm of the fine arts ... another medium for the creation of large-scale sculptural installations." He believes the "ideas expressed by their glassworks are more significant to the artists than the material properties of glass itself."
The Renwick has in the past deserved loud hurrahs as it pioneered in showing magnificent work from the studio artists in this country who breathed life into glass as art. At least one, Dale Chihuly, stars in the National Gallery of Art's "The Art of Glass, Masterpieces From the Corning Museum."
However, in this show, the Renwick has assembled no ancient or contemporary vases, vessels, bowls or sculpture such as sparkle with light in the National Gallery's show. That show is about beauty and construction. More than half of the Renwick's is about ugliness and deconstruction.
After March 17, the National Gallery's treasures go back to the Corning Museum in New York.
Five of the ephemeral works of the Renwick show will close Feb. 3; Ruffner's and Morris's go on until April 14.
After that, it all will be ripped out, torn apart, moved out.