Shattering Glass
Contemporary American studio glass at the Katonah Museum

SO WHERE IS GLASS GOING AS A FINE ART MEDIUM? “Shattering Glass: New Perspectives” at the Katonah Museum answers with a site-specific, installation-based exhibition of contemporary glass works by 22 artists. Tina Oldknow, curator for the Corning Museum of Glass, notes that questions about the direction of art glass have been in the air since the beginning of the studio glass movement in the 1960’s. But that is a bit like poet Philip Larkin stating that sex began in 1963.

glass leaf
Mark Zirpel, Leaf I, 2002

The origin of glassmaking is lost in the dust of ages. It was already ancient when Pliny the Elder (23-79 A.D.) recorded that fine glass goblets were replacing ones of precious metal as status symbols among wealthy Romans. Mummies buried two and a half millennia ago. wear glass beads and scarabs. Glassblowers are depicted even earlier on Egyptian tombs built in the predynastic period. It is likely that the art dates back centuries more than these first traces found along the Nile.

Glass is inherently beautiful; its colors and transparencies hint at alchemy. What else is the transformation of sand and soda ash into something so precious that the Book of Job compares glass to gold and Venetian glass makers were forbidden to leave the island of Murano?

There are substantive works here that are both lovely and clever, but the prevailing objective is optical dazzle. The exhibition is good fun but only some ot it has the staying power of your grandmother’s fluted cranberry glass creamer or ruffled compote in carnival glass.

The most successful works achieve harmony between content and material. Light is a defining element — and sometimes the subject — of almost every piece here. It is crucial to Mark Zirpel’s radiant “Leaf I” (2002). A magnified image of a magnolia leaf is sandblasted onto a beveled sheet of green plate glass. Lit from below, the leaf’s formal complexity is evident in the fragile intricacy of its veining. It appears to turn toward the light, a tropism that mirrors man’s own yearnings before nature.

An avid bow-and-arrow hunter, William Morris translates his intimacy with animal physiology into “Trophies,” a haunting and evocative series of blown-glass skulls. Crackled, etched and opaque glass sculptures of horned mammals — elk, antelope, moose — could be mistaken for tribal artifacts. Skulls and antlers are decorated with subtle geometric patterns that suggest long-forgotten rituals.

Josiah McElheny’s “Modernity Circa 1962, Mirrored and Reflected Infinitely” (2004) sets eight mirrored bottles, each swollen and indented to maximize reflections, into a shallow mirrored vitrine. Yet the reflections appear to extend into infinity. Even after you puzzle out the trick (I am not telling) behind the optical effect, it remains hypnotic.

“Vessel Display” (2003) is Dante Marioni’s fanciful still life arrangement. Displayed along five shelves are 114 whimsically shaped glass vessels. Each piece sports seductive black tendrils, curlicues, swags, and arabesques. Clear glass contours disappear against the shelf while your eye scans black markings that, at a distance, mimic musical notation or mysterious hieroglyphics.

Some pieces show to best effect in the dark, like fixtures for cocktail dens. Eric Ehlenberger’s overhead installation of neon-lit, hand-bown jellyfish is luminous and playful. The elegant light play of Sydney Cash’s “Circular Weaving” (2007) is a sophisticated alternative to the mirror ball that throws reflections onto surrounding walls. Club decor comes to mind again in the undulating wave patterns of Thèrésa Lahaie’s “Olive Nocturne” (2006) dancing against the wall.

Richard Klein takes his cue from French artist Arman, whose well-known “Accumulations” pile vast quantities of identical everyday objects into Plexiglas boxes. Mr. Klein’s “Transparency” (2007) converts hundreds of recycled eyeglasses and a handful of glass ashtrays into a honeycombed assemblage that salutes the detritus of our lives

Ann Gardner hangs concrete lozenges covered in glass mosaic from the ceiling. Entitled “Fog” (2007), the piece is a head-cracking riff on beaded curtains. Arlene Schectet’s Out of the Blue” (2007) consists of short segments of a cast crystal rope traipsing across two walls. Both works signal craft in search of a purpose,

Angelo Filomeno’s “Cold” (2007) is for kiddies who think death and dying are Halloween pranks. A human skeleton, blown in opaque black glass, sprawls on the floor in reach of two black beetles and a rumple of black silk. Anyone who takes mortality seriously will be hard put not to kick the thing. (You have to stay recalcitrant, somehow, in the teeth of gallery-sanctioned vacuity.)

For manic dissonance between means and ends, there is Sharyn O’Meara’s “Untitled/Cloud” (2007). Sixty miles of optical fiber are meticulously sewn with micro filament into a nuclear mushroom cloud that is concealed in a floor-to-ceiling black box and glimpsed through a tiny peephole. A system of reducing lenses shrinks the emblem of a staggeringly lethal phenomenon down to a puny thumbnail. Thus does the artist comment “on our global interconnection.”

Compare Judith Schachtect’s stained glass “Wreck of the Isabelle” (2005) with the Gothic cathedrals claimed as precedents or with designs by such poets in the medium as John La Farge, Louis Tiffany, and Louis Sullivan. Ms. Schachtect’s incongruous entry is an unwittng burlesque of its inheritance.

The question of where studio glass is headed is beside the point. It is against the long, stunning romance and achievement of glass that a show like this is to be measured. Glass, like every medium, earns its status as art from its aesthetic value, not from novelty or irony. What matters is the sensibility of the artist who employs it.

You find yourself resisting the aimlessness of a glass-shingled teepee or the twenty firings expended on making glass resemble litter. Suddenly, the windshield on your Subaru begins to look artful. And an old blue seltzer bottle, held up to the light, is enough to bring you into tangible communion with Pliny’s Romans.


“Shattering Glass: New Perspectives” at the Katonah Museum (Route 22 at Jay Street, Katonah NY, 914-232-9555).

This review first appeared in The New York Sun, December 6, 2007.

Copyright 2007, Maureen Mullarkey

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