THE SO-CALLED studio glass movement (the making of one-of-a-kind or limited edition art glass) has never been more popular than at present. There's even a commemorative postage stamp out celebrating the form. Yet I am by nature suspicious of any exhibition that feels the need to shout its virtues at me, not once but twice.
Hence, "Glass! Glorious Glass!," the show-tune-evoking title of the Renwick Gallery's exhibition of contemporary American studio glass, filled my heart with some trepidation that the survey might not be able to live up to the expectations engendered by its hyper-enthusiastic calling card.
My fears, as it turns out, were groundless.
The work, by 41 glass artists drawn from the Renwick's permanent collection, is its own exclamation point. Sparkling in its variety -- though some of the pieces are as unreflective as clay (Hank Murta Adams's pumpkin-colored bust of "Gomer") and as grainy-textured as a sugar cube (Karla Trinkley's "Rosette") -- it is the kind of exhibit that inspires the sort of admiring whispers normally associated with a Fourth of July fireworks display.
Part of this is due to the lavish way the show is lit. Thanks to the fact that the Renwick's parent institution, the National Museum of American Art, has one fewer exhibition on view than normal, the Renwick was able to use the freed-up fixtures to illuminate the works in "Glass!" with theatrical flair.
"Beautiful, just beautiful," murmured a recent visitor, apparently bedazzled by the sleek, polished facets of Linda MacNeil's "Triform Vessel." "Now this I would like to have at home."
That's the thing about glass. Like ceramics, like fiber, like furniture, the user-friendly art form is of a material that feels familiar, accessible. Unlike a lot of the distancing stuff we see in contemporary art museums, the vernacular of the craft is echoed in the vases, mirrors and light bulbs we use every day.
That idea -- the synthesis of functionality and form -- is merely one of the ones played with by the artists here, in pieces like Sidney R. Hutter's "Vase #65-78." Consisting of a series of machine-made glass disks of varying diameters stacked around a central helix of glass bars, the engineer-turned-artist's architectonic piece is actually not a usable vase at all but a sculptural silhouette of one.
Similarly, Roger Parramore's liturgy-inspired "Flagon, Sacrificial Chalice, Paten and Ciborium" reference the functional but are so top-heavy with ornamentation that their delicate stems must be anchored to the display case lest they topple over.
Not all the works awe to the same degree or for the same reasons. Give me the pure, gut-wrenching abstraction of pieces like Marvin Lipofsky's metal-plated and rayon-flocked blown glass "Form #25" and "Form #28" any day over the paperweight prettiness of Paul Stankard's "Cactus Botanical With Spirits."
Needless to say, there are also several modest works on view by Dale Chihuly, considered the art glass movement's godfather, although none of Chihuly's art at the Renwick is as spectacular as the massive chandeliers that filled the atrium of the Corcoran Gallery of Art a few years ago. In fact, over Chihuly I'd recommend William Morris's quietly evocative "Raft," a work by an artist whose recent explorations into the realm of archaeology and mythology were featured in a show this past summer at the Chrysler Museum in Norfolk.
If you didn't get a chance to see Morris's sumptuous installations down there, it's likely that his small but potent talisman at the Renwick will only whet your appetite for another, fuller retrospective of this remarkable artist's work closer to Washington.
Another craft virtuoso is the focus of a retrospective at the Textile Museum. "Peter Collingwood: Master Weaver" offers a fascinating look at the nearly 50-year career of the now 77-year-old British rug-maker, one whose contemporary designs for floor and wall coverings (including his so-called 3-D macrogauzes, which lifted rugs not only off the floor but quite literally off the wall) and mechanical adaptations to the standard loom can truly be said to have revolutionized the field.
What's oddest and most refreshing about Collingwood's considerable artistic and technical innovations is that they illustrate, by his own admission, the adage that necessity is the mother of invention. It's ironic that Collingwood's most daring departures from ancient tradition arose not from some loosey-goosey notion of pushing the artistic envelope but from a simple desire to put food on the table.
A surgeon by training, Collingwood had been working as a Red Cross volunteer treating Palestinian refugees in Jordan in the late 1940s when he realized he didn't much like doctoring and that he was more fascinated by the woven tent-liners he had began collecting from Bedouin artisans. Back home in England, the realization that most people thought he was an idiot to leave the lucrative world of medicine only drove him harder to prove he could make a living as a weaver.
In a video accompanying the show, Collingwood recounts how, as a novice, he was searching for a way to break free of the tyranny of the plain weave, whose longitudinal and latitudinal regimentation of warp and weft fibers pretty much restricted rug patterns to either horizontal or vertical stripes of color.
It was while pretending to tie his shoe on a department store floor sample rug that Collingwood taught himself the means of creating discontinuous blocks rather than simple bands of color, eventually going his anonymous teacher one step better by inventing his own "shaft-switching" technique, an improvement involving rigid but movable heddles, or harnesses, which enabled him to more quickly and easily move entire sections of warp fibers back and forth on the loom, creating the fluid geometric patterns and crossed-over threads for which he became famous. The energy that fueled his drive was twofold: On the one hand he wanted to fashion something that looked different from what everyone else was making, and on the other he needed to be able to make it fast enough to sell lots of them.
Excellent examples of this technique are on view in Collingwood's poetic macrogauze and 3-D macrogauze series, open-mesh wall hangings made of linen reinforced and separated with metal rods (the term "macro" refers to Collingwood's exaggerated enlargement of the normal openings between the strands of gauze fabric).
Although Collingwood will use a variety of hues in a commission, his preferred palette is of blacks, whites and grays. A recent monumental installation for Japan's Kiryu Performing Arts Centre is a giant, nine-panel wall hanging of stainless steel yarn -- originally developed for Firestone Tires -- in subtly different heat-treated tones. A single sample panel is on view at the Textile Museum.
In contrast to Collingwood's rugs, the hard-lined macrogauzes are really a form of three-dimensional drawing, because the monochrome fibers allow you to focus on the movement of the thread without being distracted by bright color.
Unsurprisingly, as you walk in front of some of these pieces (which stretch but do not break the definition of "textile"), you might almost believe you hear music emanating from their chord-like surfaces.
What is that soundless sound? It is the grace notes plucked on the strings of a floating harp by a calloused but invisible hand.
GLASS! GLORIOUS GLASS! -- Through Jan. 30 at the Renwick Gallery of the National Museum of American Art, 17th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW (Metro: Farragut West). 202/357-2700 (TDD: 357-1729). Web site: www.nmaa.si.edu. Open 11 to 5 daily. Free admission.
Public programs in conjunction with "Glass! Glorious Glass!" include a six-minute continuously repeating video and half-hour tours offered every Monday through Friday at noon.
PETER COLLINGWOOD: MASTER WEAVER -- Through Jan. 23 at the Textile Museum, 2320 S St. NW (Metro: Dupont Circle). 202/667-0441. Web site: www.textilemuseum.org. Open 10 to 5 Mondays through Saturdays, Sundays 1 to 5. Admission is free with a suggested donation of $5.