July 2006
Page 4
Glass Art Guild . . . from page 1

images 0 | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8

The first thing that becomes apparent on entering the gallery’s entirely glass walled space is the diversity of expressive and decorative uses. This is true even though the Glass Art Guild is showing neither of the two historically most popular glass-working techniques. Until about a hundred years ago, glass was so difficult to work that only industrial facilities staffed by specialized artisans could craft it. Then, in the early 1900s, a few individual artists attempted both blown and stained glass. Neither caught on until the 1960s, when technological breakthroughs put essential parts of both arts in the hands of individuals with vision. In the 70s it seemed realistic to think that glass would be the signature art of the end of the century. But it didn’t happen. Stained glass proved unsuitable to the rigors of gallery exhibition, and faded from the scene after 1980. Because of its performance appeal, glass blowing continues to draw an audience long after it used up its meager expressive means — how many ways can you say “goblet?” — and promoters turned to large-scale public ornaments and private luxury ware. In Seattle, leading glass blowers are now struggling in court over control of the declining market.

The one piece of good news is that the manufacturers who supply the trade with raw sheets of colored glass saw the handwriting on the wall in the 80s and set about augmenting their traditional product with something new: an entire catalog of glass products that can be fused together in a kiln, with the full range of color, translucency, and luminous effects captured permanently in the finished work. To have glass that could be reconfigured in the studio as easily as painters juxtapose and layer paint or sculptors mold and weld objects was the fulfillment of an ancient dream; and though adaptable to use in stained and blown glass, these materials quickly gave rise to their own distinct mediums, which make up the work that is on display in Patrick Moore Gallery.

In this exhibit, some thirty artists represent themselves with about 250 objects. Under this burden, the subtler forms of criticism must first yield to some sorting. The role of gatekeeper is neither popular nor satisfying. There is no form of kiln-worked glass that lacks its fans, and someone will always be offended by the arbitrarily exclusion of anything. So what if clocks, lamps, vases, and even furniture, all covered in colored glass marquetry, seem more like interior décor than art to some viewers? They may still be beautiful. So this is one person’s overview: me pointing out the irises while overlooking the rest of the garden.

After the diversity of objects, the second thing I noticed was that the appreciation of Nature, which powered much of the artistic energy of the 60s, remains as vital in glass as in other Utah arts. Piece after piece strives to recall the wilderness into our domesticated lives. In Jack Bowman’s bas-relief, "Sunset on a Distant World," for example, a fiery sun of fused glass is bisected by a tree-clad horizon of welded steel.|0| The vista reminds us that the sun is only concealed, not devoured, by the mass of the earth, and that the horizon is an optical illusion that depends on the viewer’s point of view.

In fused glass, scale is limited as much by the size of kiln as by such practical limits as weight and fragility. Large works are made of several pieces mounted next to each other. The title of one such wall-sized ensemble, Laurie Burns’ "Popsicles," fails to convey the optical feast she actually presents.|1| Here is an extensive primer of the opulent visual effects fusing can produce. Like a Renaissance painter, Burns builds her surface in translucent layers, giving the result not just the illusion of depth, but actual internal space within which can be found textures that shift color as the eye plays into and over them. Although a purpose beyond optical pleasure remains elusive, the work’s sensual pleasure promises to unfold endlessly in the viewer’s eye.

A hope for glass expressed by critics is that it will gradually lose its solitary position and become a common component in mainstream art. One Guild member who may feel this way is Dan Cummings, who seems more interested in the ability of glass to capture human physiognomy than in its pure spectacle. "King Dan," another wall piece, presents a life-size mask cast from a human head, perhaps a self-portrait, wearing a crown made up of alternating segments of itself and an enigmatic sphere on which arcane symbols pulse through evanescent clouds of color.|2| This king of both ideas and feelings is in every way a self-made man. Nearby, Kerry Transtrum’s three "Life Beams" also capture expressions of the body, especially the eyes and hands, but do so using negative space: here the surrounding air seems frozen into clear glass, while the voids left on its periphery materialize the missing features and their gestures.|3|

One of the more enigmatic and complex works is Mike Green’s "Rainbow Body," assembled from 55 cross-sectional slices of thick plate glass stacked like vertebrae.|4| Laid on its back, the figure recalls an Egyptian sarcophagus one moment, the next suggesting those three-dimensional computer mockups of the body depicted in 2-D on the Shroud of Turin. The title comes from shards of colored glass beneath the body, which is illuminated by an electric light in the hammered copper bier on which it lies. If the body is dead, why is it filled with a seemingly spiritual light? Perhaps it only sleeps, and dreams render visible the otherwise imperceptible.

Everyone is entitled to favorites. The couple from Houston spoke to me because I was perusing Christine Kende’s delicate pâte-de-verre vessel, "Geode on a Travertine Base."|5| Many jewel-like effects come out of the kiln, so one of its most popular uses is personal adornment. Like the giant chandeliers of Dale Chihuly, Anne Timpson’s fabulous, elaborate necklaces, "Fathom" |6| and "Seahorse," overwhelm the viewer while providing many small pleasures to discover.

My personal favorites were three ‘windows’ made by Cynthia Oliver that combined a disarmingly simple appearance with layers of sophistication. "In the Moment" |7| and "Simply Stated" are both based on wooden sashes recycled from the days before thermal glazing, when multiple panes were actually separate pieces of glass. Oliver fills each pane with a geometric pattern of colorless glass shapes stacked three and four layers deep. Enriching the texture that results, some of the shapes are themselves cut from glass with a textured surface meant to create privacy, but here recalling a whole range of forbidden associations. Each overall design suggests Modernism stripped of characteristic bold color, and that combined with the pale color of the wood dematerializes the whole composition, suggesting a figment out of memory somehow as immediate as the light pouring through right now. Oliver calls her third piece "Higgins Inspired," perhaps referring to Frances and Michael Higgins, pioneer kiln workers of glass who since 1942 invented the core techniques central to the art today. They would be honored by the homage. Oliver has fashioned an adaptable decorative system that uses identically proportioned modules of theoretically infinite variety, each embedded with four wire hooks that enable the assembly of a web of glass that could span a window, a doorway, or even a wall.|8|

It occurs to me that I misspoke when I said there was one bit of good news in glass. There is another. Glass is alive in Utah, in the hands of a guild of enthusiasts, amateurs in the true sense of the word, who continue to please themselves and find ways, in the process, to delight each other and their audience.

Recently Read
Wonders Read: Arthur C. Danto's Essays from the Gap Between Life and Art
by Ed Bateman

Writing about art in a book without pictures might strike you as odd - something like singing about dancing. But since works of art also have meaning, who better to unpack that meaning than someone whose passion is ideas - a trained philosopher.

Arthur C. Danto is arguably the most widely read and cited art critic of the last decade. He taught philosophy at Columbia University in New York and has written art reviews in The Nation for the past twenty years. Unnatural Wonders: Essays from the Gap Between Life and Art is his fifth collection. Danto himself refers to his essays as "…the philosophical exploration of art in the guise of critical reviews…" So naturally, reading these essays is not a substitute to seeing the show, but it helps you better appreciate the artists’ work and is a powerful reminder that there are deep philosophical issues presented by great art.

These essays span the time from early 2000 (the Whitney Biennial) to the near present – the book was published in 2005. A lot happened in the wider world during that time, and Danto stays true to his subtitle with two essays discussing the effects of 9/11 on art and on the art world.

This is probably not the kind of book that you sit down and read cover to cover. With each essay running around eight pages, it's a great book to skim and explore in free moments. I find that with Danto's books of essays I am drawn first to the artists that I am most familiar with or that I have a current interest in. Then I move on to artists that are less well known to me. Call it a failing of my education, but some of the essays are on artists whose names were only slightly familiar. This book helps to correct that oversight in a deep way. However, a trip to the web or the library for images is required to fully appreciate those artists. Remember, this writing was originally published while the show in question was available for inspection.

The range of artists that Danto discusses is astounding – from classical artists like Leonardo DaVinci and Artemisia Gentileschi to modern classics like Picasso and Alberto Giacometti. The contemporary, such as Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons, and Barbara Kruger, are also subjects for his philosophical gaze. With over forty essays, surely everyone involved in the visual arts will find a hero or favorite discussed in these pages. It is a tribute to Danto’s insights that even with artists that I was familiar with, I felt that my understanding of their work and place in the history of art was deepened. He even has an essay on Norman Rockwell that draws you in if only to see how he fares in such lofty company … and why, perhaps, we evaluate him differently.

As a philosopher, Danto is as likely to quote Plato as Picasso. One might be intimidated by an essay on Gerhard Richter that begins with a paragraph on Hegel. But Danto is aware enough to recognize that while most of us have heard of Hegel, few of us would claim any understanding of his ideas – especially as they apply to art. So in a way, Danto's book functions as both art education as well as a nice introduction to many philosophical ideas in a way that would interest most artists. He has a way of leaving you feeling educated.

Often, Danto, will use the work of an artist to discuss a bigger theme. In what I feel is one of the most significant essays in the book, he uses the work of Renee Cox and the reaction of Rudolph Giuliani to her work, Yo Mama's Last Supper, as a springboard to discuss censorship and First Amendment issues. It is some of his most impassioned writing, as the following introductory paragraph will demonstrate:

"The almost exact coincidence in time between the destruction of the Buddha figures by the Taliban in Afghanistan and Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's renewed jihad against the Brooklyn Museum vividly underscores the problem that authorities seem to have in dealing with images."

This is strong stuff. To understand this issue, Danto takes us through a brief history of the power of icons and the forces of iconoclasm, starting with the Biblical book of Exodus and extending through the present. It's a rich history of ideas and precise philosophical distinctions (a Danto specialty) all presented quite nicely in a few pages. Importantly, this essay contains crucial ammunition for those that have to defend the role of art to a community and its leaders. In a conflict of ideas, Danto is someone you would want on your side.

Making high art out of low art is discussed in an essay on the works of Jeff Koons and the topic of banality. Like many critics, Danto was not originally a fan of Koons - he referred to the works in his 1988 show as a "…vision of aesthetic hell." But here, Danto finds grist for deeper thought and ultimately reevaluation. In a journey that begins with a discussion of Henry James' story The Madonna of the Future and winds through the last hundred years of art history, Danto manages to discuss the "unnatural wonder" that transcends the banal. He uses the example of Koons' notorious giant glazed porcelain Michael Jackson and His Chimpanzee Bubbles to discuss the reasons behind its uncanny presence and link it, through Duchamp's ready-mades, to the work of the surrealists.

At it's worst, art criticism is laden with jargon and pretension. Danto avoids this by writing about ideas. It is clear, intelligent, and treats the reader as a knowledgeable, thoughtful individual. One of the things that comes across in this book is that Danto loves art. He sees it at the beginning of the new millennium as moving away from being merely separate rarefied objects. To Danto, the space between art and life is indeed being bridged. In his own words, he wants to give his "…readers something to think about – about art, about life, and about the relationships between them."

Unnatural Wonders: Essays from the Gap Between Life and Art
By Arthur C. Danto
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
ISBN: 0374281181
Hardcover: 320 pages

Order this book from using this link and a portion of your purchase will go towards supporting 15 Bytes.