By Margaret Regan
MOST OF THE time down at Philabaum Contemporary Art Glass you find gorgeous bowls and goblets, perfume decanters and vases, all handmade by master glass artisans. But once a year, during the nationwide invitational, the shimmering glassware that's more or less functional (depending on the user's finesse) gets relegated to a back room. Glass art for art's sake takes over the front gallery.
This year, demonstrating the pleasing fact that gallery owner Tom Philabaum is keeping up with his Latin, the show is called Southwest Invitational IX: Homo Vitreus (Glass Human). So instead of the gallery's usual decorative bottles there are masks of tormented human faces trapped in glass (by David Leppla of New Jersey). Instead of glistening plates suitable for display on the mantle there are rough concrete-and-glass sculptures of attenuated human bodies stretched into the dangerous shape of sharp icicles (Nancy Langston of Massachusetts). And instead of the anonymous abstractions of glass jewelry, there are glass acrobats cavorting through space (Milon Townsend of New York), glass Icaruses falling to their doom (Leppla and Townsend), and a glass goddess in the Willendorf style, amply billowing out her fleshy glass folds (Sabrina Knowles and Jenny Pohlman of Seattle).
The glass art in the show is contributed by some 20, dare we say, ground-breaking glass artists from around the country. As usual, the invitees demonstrate the amazing technical wizardry required for working in this difficult, even dangerous medium. Glass pieces can be formed in an astonishing variety of ways. There's sculptured hot glass (Kimball E. Trump of Massachusetts), flameworked glass (Ricky Charles Dodson of Texas), manipulated hand-blown glass (Ruth King of Ohio), lost-wax cast glass (John Littleton and Kate Vogel of North Carolina), and cast crystal (Leppla), to name but a few of the tricky techniques. Then there are the mixed-media pieces, in which glass has been fused to concrete, or combined with wood, painted in oils or surrounded by found objects.
Many of these pieces could stand with no embarrassment alongside the most daring of contemporary art. Leppla's "Hiding from a Dream," made of paté de verre and cast crystal, has a cast human face embedded hopelessly in a wedge of clear glass that's lined with a thick accumulation of black and white crystals. It's a piece of art that's all at once technically proficient, psychologically potent and beautiful. Similarly, the team of Littleton and Vogel has made a riveting sculpture in "Crystal (Jack's Hand)," a lost-wax cast-glass work that's been faceted and polished. A man's white fist grasping some sharp object emerges from a frosty bottom of floating red and purple glass bubbles. The whole thing has been encased in a hexagonal clear-glass casing, and each facet reflects the image of the fist at a different angle. Langston's concrete-and-glass wall pieces (the icicle-shaped bodies) are sophisticated and interesting sculptures by any measure.
But there's something in glass that longs for kitsch. Chalk it up to its long corny history as a medium for boardwalk glass blowers hawking crinkly glass boats, or to the dreadful mass-produced glass "collectibles" advertised in Sunday supplements, or even to its origins in functional objects. Some of the works in the show--Tucsonan Leah Wingfield's African-themed figurines, Wisconsin artist Kathleen Eggert's flat glass women in Latin American traje --stop just short of schlock, expertly made though they are.
A couple of the artists confront the issue head-on and revel in kitsch for kitsch's sake. Robert Mickelsen of Florida does a deft balancing act between Art Deco and kitsch, coming up with some strange medleys of naked figures and geometric shapes, colored in rich Art Deco ambers and bottle greens. Dodson, though, goes all out for kitsch. His candelabra "Dance of the Free" is a gloriously corny medley of fish and animal shapes in wild cartoon colors. Its focal point is an Atlas-like glass young woman, naked, natch, who with her muscular arms bravely and singlehandely holds up the whole shebang.
Southwest Invitational IX: Homo Vitreus continues through April 27 at Philabaum Contemporary Art Glass, 711 S. Sixth Ave. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. For more information call 884-7404.
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