Mexican artist Ana Thiel lives in San Miguel de Allende, a beautiful colonial town full of well-heeled expatriates, but her mixed-media glass art reflects the gritty reality of Mexican life.
Thiel scavenges in trash heaps and in old buildings, rescuing rusted metal, splintery wood, machine parts and pieces of old furniture. She combines these woebegone elements with hot cast glass, a thick and luscious material that she pushes into sensuous curves.
Twenty-three of her arresting pieces are now on view in her 30-year retrospective at the University of Arizona Museum of Art, as part of the big glass-art festival that's continuing for months in Tucson.
Merging the refined with the rough, these artworks visually evoke Mexico, a place where beauty and poverty exist side by side. In Mexico, inventive campesinos and maquila workers lovingly craft homes for their families out of trashed tin and factory pallets, and elderly Indian women living on sidewalks create embroidery masterpieces out of cheap thread.
Likewise, Thiel's artworks go from low art to high. "Colgado a Secar" (Hung to Dry), 2004, is one of her simplest. A gob of clear molten glass, alluring and irresistible, dangles from an old wire clothes-hanger pulled from the dump.
Other pieces are more complicated. The wall work "Un Camino" (One Way), 1998, looks like a painting. Its base is a stretch of blackened lumber that's been burned and scorched. To this sorry panel, Thiel has added clear glass shaped into an untamed circle, its interior filled with unruly and overlapping glass shapes. This human-made jewel occupies a crevice in the rough wood; fine gold leaf incongruously tumbles below the burn.
"Fuentes de Saber" (Fountains of Knowledge), 2001, is a pedestal sculpture that merges an antique book with decayed wood. Inside the open book, a curling glass bookmark is wrapped in a mesh screen, and the entire assemblage has been lashed on to a rough wood frame.
One big floor piece, "Estanque de Luz" (Pond of Light), 2001, had to be partially constructed onsite. As curator Lauren Rabb recounts it, Thiel brought along the centerpiece, an oval piece of clear and lovely cast glass. But this art glass was to be surrounded by lower-grade industrial glass, and she set the staff off to search for 10 glass windshields.
When the staff scavenger hunt ended, and the black-bordered windshields were in place, Rabb and her co-workers followed Thiel's instructions to stomp on the glass until it cracked, and thousands of spidery lines threaded through the surfaces. Thiel arranged the broken windshields fetchingly on the museum's floor in the shape of a pond. Through their overlapping layers, the artist strung tiny lights, glowing a warm yellow-white.
All of these works explore duality: the natural and the human-made; past and present; low materials and high. But occasionally, Thiel goes for pure beauty. One room of the museum is dark, save for the electric lights embedded in a series of gorgeous pedestal pieces. One after another, they shine on their stands, looking for all the world like the sparkly mineral display in a shadowy gallery at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum.
"Bambu" (Bamboo), 2011, is a sand-cast piece in green and clear glass. It's segmented, just like a bamboo trunk. The glass plant rises upward, illuminated by a beacon of white light at the bottom of its hollow core.
Continuing the Latin theme, the Joseph Gross Gallery next door to UAMA is staging a Latin American Glass Art Invitational. The choice was apt, since the city-wide glass festival, ¡Viva el Vidrio! (Long Live Glass), is partly a celebration of Latino artists.
The show's six glass artists are from Mexico, Chile and Venezuela. Their daring works vary dramatically, making this one of the most interesting group exhibitions of the festival. Playful and imaginative, their pieces range from glass goblets made to look like women's dresses to a provocative printed political banner to paintings on glass that look like photographs.
Valeria Florescano gets credit for the playful glass goblets. These elaborate vessels—the kind that a certain royal couple might use to toast each other later this month—are in delirious colors and patterns: lime green and teal, deep blue with white glass beads, orange stripes, deep purple. Florescano has turned her eight glasses upside down on a platform, so that the bowl of the glass becomes a lady's skirt; the stem becomes a body; and the base becomes a hat.
The title, "Caliz Tehuana," gives a clue to the meaning of these charmers. Caliz means cup, and Tehuana refers to the traditional dress of indigenous women from Tehuantepec in southern Mexico. Frida Kahlo, among other artists, celebrated their fancy clothes—saucer hats of lace and full skirts—as markers of indigenous pride and identity. Florescano's hot-out-of-the-kiln cups, made in 2010, are just the latest in this art historical tradition.
Edison Osorio Zapata goes for political critique in "Gringo Graffiti," 2010. A large blown-glass roller etched with images hangs on the wall; next to it is its handiwork: a huge hanging paper that bears the inked imprint of the roller's single image repeated 105 times. It pictures an old-fashioned Latino couple from the '30s, perhaps, surrounded by the harsh, bland language of deportation and immigration laws. The repetition of the words "deportation" and "violation" stand out, echoing the vituperative and endless debates over immigration now raging in the U.S.
Chilean Josefina Muñoz is an excellent painter; she just happens to paint on curved glass disks that she's hand-blown and cold-worked. In "Transitions," 2010, nine glass plates are attached to the wall in random order. Munoz's deft paintings in black, white and gray mimic photographs; they're beautiful renditions of modern skyscrapers and historic buildings jumbled together in a dense urban streetscape. The glass doesn't allow the paint to seep in, as canvas would; instead, the thick pigments stay in thick, satisfying pools on the surface. \<cTypeface: