In the "Rev. White Church of Light," the devout worship neon.
A multitude of little silver figures raise their arms in ecstasy. In their joy, some of them seem to dance, tilting sideways on their feet. But all of them lift their heads to gaze at a billboard rising above them. Up there, among the trees, glowing white neon spells out a single word: Light.
This semi-comical piece by James White, a sculptor and art professor at Arizona State University, is one of about 10 mixed-media neon sculptures in White's solo show at Pima Community College West. Made of steel, neon, bronze and pewter, the tabletop work creates an outdoor setting, complete with the sign, trees and crowds. It pokes fun, mildly, at religious obsession and group-think. But it also is an affectionate appreciation of mystery and beauty—of light in the sky.
In a way, it's too bad that the neon god that White made doesn't spell out the word "Glass." But "Light" is close enough. White's solo show is one of about 16 exhibitions around town right now celebrating the glittering art of glass, the endlessly versatile material that takes on gorgeous color and shimmers with light.
The months-long Tucson Glass Festival, ¡Viva el Vidrio!, is now in full swing, moving toward the fiesta weekend of April 8-10.
Glass is extravagantly adaptable, and every festival exhibition showcases different uses. At the Tucson Museum of Art, the pure glass of Tom Philabaum's elegant Precarious Rocks shares space with the de la Torre brothers' Borderlandia, an over-the-top collection of glass (mixed with everything from beads to bottle caps) that evokes the fertile cultural mash along the U.S.-Mexico borderlands. (See "Playfully Serious," Feb. 17.)
On a tour last week to just four of the galleries, I found richly colored blown glass by Arizona and New Mexico artists at Philabaum's downtown studio gallery; more of Philabaum's blown-glass rocks at Davis Dominguez; and glass mixed with beads and metal at Obsidian Gallery.
In the Louis Carlos Bernal Gallery at Pima, slender glass tubes of neon snake through White's heavyweight metals. The glass is a relatively small component of pieces that—like that outdoor church—aim to take on lofty themes. But like the de la Torre brothers, White injects humor into everything he does.
His "Table Dance" has three heavy-metal chairs prancing around a ring that serves as a legless table; embedded in the table's curves is a canary-yellow string of neon. In "Wind Finger," a hand—outlined in pink neon—points toward a giant sand fingerprint. The wind comes from an old-fashioned electric fan.
White often uses pewter Everyman and Everywoman figures (some have a penis, others breasts). Assembled from tiny poles and spheres, they look like board-game pieces, shining in silver or gold. They can be charming or sinister; sometimes, they're merely foolish.
"Golden Boy With Tail" is the biggest of them, big enough to ride a real-life painted skateboard. Below the board, a swarm of smaller humans skitter about, joining forces with tiny robots. One of these small guys rides a miniature motorcycle, leading the whole gang, possibly to their doom.
Where does the glass come in? Tiny neon lights, strung in the shadows underneath the skateboard, cast a cool blue glow.
Glass takes on a bigger role in the mixed-media works at Obsidian, and their makers aren't interested in dissecting the human condition. Apart from a couple of artists who craft glass lampshades, the Obsidian exhibitors have one goal only: the creation of pure beauty.
Melissa Haid embeds colorful beads and shiny bits of metal into lovely panels made up of hundreds of shards of clear fused glass. After these components melt and mold together in the kiln, Haid links the flat square panels together with wire and hangs them in chains of six. A few of them dangle near the gallery windows, shimmering like crystals in the light.
The spousal team of Katia Pflipsen Olivova and Steve Pflipsen, operating as Pflipsen Olivova Studio, makes curvy blown glass vessels, topped with snaky strands of dark metal. These art pieces take their outer forms from functional glass vases and bottles, but they have no household uses. Their interiors are as solid as marbles or paperweights.
The Pflipsens deftly manipulate optics. The rounded exteriors of their artworks are clear glass, and the shapes of the brilliant colors on the inside—turquoise, red-orange, ruby red—shift and change, depending on where your eye comes to rest.
Down at the Philabaum Glass Gallery and Studio, the group show It's a Dry Heat honors glass artists from Arizona and New Mexico. Grand glass eminence Fritz Dreisbach, a Tucsonan renowned on the national glass-art scene, exhibits his sensuous "mongo" pieces. Thick and luscious, his swaths of glistening blown glass—like "Transparent Yellow Green Seaform"—riff on forms from the natural world.
Santa Fe artist Charles Miner works in cast glass, an intricate, months-long process that involves encasing a wax sculpture in a plaster cast, melting the wax and then pouring shards of glass into the mold. His cast-glass "Truchas" (Spanish for "trouts") is a soft, textured lime-green with a matte finish. Simply shaped fish swim around the perimeter of the bowl, and the spaces in between them are open to the air.
Carole Perry of Cave Creek takes inspiration from rainbow-striped Mexican serapes. Her fused-glass "tapestries" are almost unbelievably complex, made of thousands of tiny threads of glass called stringers. Perry builds up layers of stringers, partly fuses them in the kiln, and then carefully shapes them into cloth folds while they're still hot. "Green Flash in the Garden" is an impressive example in stripes from orange to sage.
Over at Davis Dominguez, glass artist Philabaum is being honored in yet another solo show. This tireless promoter of the medium organized the whole Tucson glass extravaganza, and it's nice to see him getting attention for his own studio work. His Precarious Rocks take up one room of the gallery, balancing—yes, precariously—on pedestals, while another series, Dervishes, has winged glass pieces dancing across the walls.
Inspired originally by chains of molecules, the irregular orbs in the rocks series are set one atop the other, joined together by invisible glue. But each piece is really about texture and shine, and about glass' uncanny ability to hold and reflect color.
The spectacular "Sunset," inspired by Philabaum's longtime home in Tucson and the Sonoran Desert, is a pedestal piece in every shade of purple, shot through with shiny gold and orange. The eight iridescent orbs in this assemblage rise into the air, magically staying aloft, a light in the sky, much like White's neon church.