'Contemporary Glass Sculpture: Celebrating the 50th Anniversary of Studio Glass' 

Orlando Museum of Art's colossal art-glass exhibition is a visual treat

Contemporary Glass Sculpture: Celebrating the 50th Anniversary of Studio Glass

through May 12 |
Orlando Museum of Art,
2416 N. Mills Ave.
407-896-4231 |

The thing to remember, Hansen Mulford tells me, is that I'm not looking at an object. "You're really looking at light," he says as the gallery's sharply focused beams glint off the crystal-clear frames of his glasses.

Mulford, longtime curator of the Orlando Museum of Art, is showing me around the museum's current art glass exhibition, and we're discussing the properties of glass, perhaps one of the most difficult and dynamic materials an artist can work with – the way it refracts and reflects light, its fragility, the sheer danger of working with the molten or shattering stuff.

Mulford is justifiably enthusiastic about this colossal exhibition of contemporary glass sculpture, celebrating the art form's rough half-century anniversary. It's difficult to place a specific date on an art practice – ideas resist carbon-dating – but art historians generally consider the defining moment to be a pair of 1962 workshops introducing methods of glass production on a small scale, which enabled individual artists to create "studio glass" in their own workspaces without a factory full of skilled workers. Those workshops were presented by artist Harvey Littleton and scientist Dominick Labino.

Prior to Littleton and Labino's pioneering methods, of course, glass had been made for millennia – it's been traced back to 3500 BCE – but ancient glass was either utilitarian (vessels) or decorative (beads). Even the prized creations of the Venetian artisans of Murano and the Czech glassmakers of Bohemia and Silesia, places that have had active glassworks since the 13th or 14th century, were considered merely craft; glass wasn't considered art until a single artist could envision and execute a work.

To comment upon each piece in this show, or even each piece I loved in this show, would take more space than I've been allotted, so I can only recommend that you go. The sheer variety lends credence to that old saw "something for everyone"; truly, any viewer will find something to enjoy, maybe even fall in love with, here. And museum staff informed me as we went to press that it's been extended through May 12, so there's little excuse to miss it.

Now, let's confront the gorilla in the room: Yes, famous glass artist Dale Chihuly is represented in this show. Mulford diplomatically refers to Chihuly as a "big statement" guy: "What sets Chihuly apart is his ability to make everything he does the biggest, the most complicated, the most over the top." It's true that Chihuly's work (produced by studio assistants since a surfing accident cost him the use of one shoulder) is technically marvelous – huge bravura agglomerations of twisty bulbs, ruffly baskets, spiny blobs in glowing colors – and it's also true that the world of contemporary art glass owes no one so large a debt as Chihuly, whose interminable (some might say self-aggrandizing) boosterism for the form has made him a pop-culture persona, complete with requisite Simpsons cameo. (I find his work to be the sculptural equivalent of a Leroy Neiman football painting – but to each her own.)

A few of the pieces that I do recommend: Littleton's cased arcs, with their bendy stripes of color captured in transparency, have a fabulously '70s appeal (they were made in the '80s, but still) reminiscent of supergraphics and ribbon candy. So does "Red Delicious Apple," which looks like an Enzo Mari print come to poppy 3-D life. I could gaze into the radiant depths of two abstract pieces of Czech glass, "Crater" and "Rhomboid Head," for hours; the deeply saturated colors of these massive chunks of mold-formed glass seem mysteriously to both absorb and generate light, lending them an enigmatic, almost profound force. Tim Tate's "Eco Mutants," a glass bottle enclosing a tiny tableau including a flickering video screen, updates the Victorian bell jar for contemporary consumption.

The show is divided officially into three sections: Color, Representation and Transparency, but a group of works along the back wall propose a fourth division: Light. Pieces by Stephen Knapp and Sydney Cash use glass more as a tool than a material — the "body" of the work, which is in fact incorporeal, is the patterns of light that are cast through carefully fabricated and mounted pieces of glass. Cash's tightly controlled, graphic concentric rings and lines are achieved by shining spots through plates of glass that are partly clear, partly mirrored; Knapp's art is borne of bits and pieces of dichroic glass, mounted in what would seem a random and uninteresting arrangement, were the carefully aimed beams of light not splashing out great vivid shouts and streaks of color.

Towering over the representational works are "Tula Frontera Sur" and "Tula Frontera Norte," by Einar and Jamex de la Torre. The Mexican brothers' 10-foot-tall border sentinels have an anarchic, carnival quality: giant robots with television tummies! But upon closer inspection, the hybrid concatenations of blown and found glass bite back. The mashup of Catholic iconography, Toltec symbology and pop-culture detritus – Elvis busts, golf clubs and Budweiser bottles for el Norte; shotguns, chili peppers and scorpions south of the border – offers a raucous commentary on cultural stereotyping.

In the room full of clear glass, one piece of note is by a local artist: Robert Mickelsen's borosilicate "Japanese 7.7mm 'Type 99' Light Machine Gun" is both intricate and cheeky. But the true wonders of the room are the bulky transparent forms – cubes and spheres and eggs – that only reveal their complexities at certain angles of observation. What looks like – is – a clear cube appears, when viewed from above, to contain a dizzying Escher-like environment, the result of precise molding and cutting (Steven Weinberg's "Untitled, #090402"). A huge wing of impossibly pure optical glass, seen from the side, has a notch cut into the back; seen from the front, the notch resolves itself into a perfect lily floating within the glass (Christopher Ries, "Desert Flower").

Almost 80 percent of this show comprises works loaned by Florida collectors, and four of those collectors will be present at an afternoon forum presented Sunday, Feb. 24. A docent-led tour of the exhibition at 12:30 p.m. will precede a 1:30 p.m. roundtable discussion with collectors Arnold Bierman, Norma Roth, Gary Sorensen and Chuck Steinmetz, along with Hansen Mulford. The Glass Collectors Forum is free with paid admission to the museum.


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