Excessive ornamentation not your thing? A new exhibition at the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM) might just change your mind. The gleefully overdone, unapologetically lavish glassworks on view in “Sargent, Whistler and Venetian Glass: American Artists and the Magic of Murano” offer nothing short of visual joy.
In colors evoking candy canes, tie dye and Laffy Taffy, and in forms borrowed from a dream, the works seem fit for a toy store.
These are luxury objects, but the appeal goes beyond fantasies of wealth. Brought back by American tourists from the workshops of Murano, an island near Venice known for its glass, the works are, in some ways, souvenirs on steroids. But they are also magical realist objects of sorts, giving glimpses of a fantastical alternate realm.
Those flowering stems: Might they grow and extend the chalice to your lips? Could that dragon warm this pitcher with its breath? Back in our world, these artifacts are like cupcakes you can smell but can’t eat. Unlike paintings, they aren’t just meant to be looked at; they tantalize with whispers of utilitarian purposes, never to be realized.
The show is one of two concurrent glass-centric exhibitions, giving the medium an outsize presence. “New Glass Now,” at SAAM’s Renwick Gallery, offers a global, contemporary perspective. If “Murano” is earnest in its opulence, the approach of “New Glass” is smart, funny and self-aware, as evidenced in Deborah Czeresko’s “Meat Chandelier,” a gaudy fixture composed of “sausages” that pokes fun at toxic masculinity in the glass-blowing world.
Glass has a long history on Murano, dating from the Roman Empire. Some of the trippiest works in the SAAM show date from antiquity. Several works in the Renwick show — such as Austin Stern’s playful, monster figure “Hugged to Death” — were crafted using Venetian glass-blowing techniques.
The industry stalled in the 18th century, the result of a weakening economy and shifting tastes. But it saw a revival in the 1860s, largely attributed to Antonio Salviati, a lawyer/entrepreneur who opened his glass-blowing workshop to the public, placing a practice once shrouded in secrecy out in the open. Tourists flocked to watch glass blowers at work, mesmerized by the intensity, likening it to a kind of sorcery. American painters who visited also referenced the industry in their work.
In the glass world, there’s an age-old tug of war between craft and fine art. Ornament — once an indicator of skill — can be seen by some as an indicator of bad taste.
But today, preferences could be shifting once again. Minimalism has come to feel more sterile than chic. Many of us crave the excess of Venetian glass: the swirling patterns; the noisy, clashing colors; the unreasonable, unnecessary details. Maybe maximalism is back.
For proof, look no further than the first gallery of the Renwick show. On graffiti-covered plinths in front of a millennial pink-and-white wall — which appears obviously staged for Instagram — stand oversized pitchers by Frederik Nielsen, as swollen as shiners, as goopy as wet dough. You can imagine, in a strange dream, reaching to pick one up, only to find it melting in your hand.
In the next gallery, Maria Bang Espersen’s “Things Change” features a row of large, thin-walled, transparent vases. Meant as a meditation on transience, the vessels have been cracked and partially shattered, embedded — almost infected — with bits of rock and brick. (A sign warns they will continue to break throughout the show.)
Where “Murano” is escapist, “New Glass” has an edgy realism. Here, glass is often corrupted, polluted and pushed to its breaking point. The fabric-like structures in Sachi Fujikake’s “Vestige” seem to collapse, as if the air has been sucked out of them. Andrea da Ponte’s “Globalized” features a sphere covered with historical maps, bulging outward against metal straps. Lothar Bottcher reimagines a smartphone as a slab of handcrafted glass, its smoothness broken up by bubblelike optical lenses and zigzagging lines.
The artist has said he found a sense of redemption in looking through — rather than into — your smartphone and seeing reality anew. And maybe this is what glass does best, regardless of the form or era: it magnifies the physical world, it heightens its stakes.
With glass art, the line between an extravagant something and a shattered nothing seems thinner than ever. The air around the delicate glass tail of a dragon seems pressurized, suspenseful — as though such a thing could only pass through this world for an instant.
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Sargent, Whistler and Venetian Glass: American Artists and the Magic of Murano
Smithsonian American Art Museum, Eighth and G streets NW. americanart.si.edu.
Dates: Through May 8.
New Glass Now
Renwick Gallery, Pennsylvania Avenue at 17th Street NW. americanart.si.edu/visit/renwick.
Dates: Through March 6.
Prices: Both museums are free.