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Shimmering Surrealism 

Leading glass artist Henry Halem shatters convention in Philabaum show

There's nothing traditional about Henry Halem's glass art.

His glass has been painted, inked and scribbled on, sandblasted, shot with acid and even shattered into a thousand spidery cracks. And the pieces are not in the lovely curves of traditional vases or bowls or in the wild firework abstractions of contemporary artists like Dale Chihuly.

Instead, they take the form of rectangles: They're ordinary glass boxes filled with extraordinary things.

Take "House on the Hill," one of Halem's seven sealed glass boxes now at Philabaum. Inside it has a little cottage made of ivory beeswax and childlike silver and gold paintings of houses. And wherever he could find room on the walls, Halen has written in script strings of words evocative of safety and home. House. Habitation. Refuge.

"Bowl of Tears" is like a miniature museum. A gorgeous blown glass bowl sits on a stack of plate-glass fragments inside the box; a shimmering circle of copper has been painted on the floor. Crayon-bright mirror images of the bowl appear on the walls, along with framed matchbook-size paintings, of a cubist cup in black and white or of Mondrianesque geometries in blue and yellow.

"This show is imbued with the history of art," Halem declared in the gallery last week, shortly after arriving from his snowbound home in Ohio. "These boxes embody elements of surrealism. It's not about traditional glass.

"I wanted to break the wall of preciousness in glass," he says,

Sometimes he does that literally. In "Fractured Dream" the plate-glass walls of the box are shattered. Ditto in "9/11 #7," an homage to September 11. Two gleaming golden towers are encased in plates of glass that have been smashed into a uncountable number of cracks.

Halem's been fracturing rules most of his life. Instead of becoming a doctor or an engineer as his working-class parents had hoped, Halem, now 76, enrolled in the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design. After a rigorous training in 2D and 3D art and art history, he says, he began making a name for himself as a potter while still in his 20s.

Contemporary glass art was in its infancy in 1968 when he arrived at the University of Wisconsin for advanced training in ceramics. The university's Harvey Littleton, known as the father of contemporary glass art, hired Halem as an assistant; the enterprising young potter needed a job and he quickly learned new glass skills. By the following year, he was teaching at Kent State University. He built a full-fledged glass art program from scratch, and led it for 29 years.

"It grew like Topsy," says Halem, who ran the program until he retired in 1999. The field was so new in those early years, he designed and built the furnaces and annealing ovens himself, and he and his students "learned from each other."

The most important thing he taught them, he says, is that "the role of the artist is to question authority. My students needed to question the existing paradigm in every art form. It was a very spirited program." (Not so coincidentally, Halem saw the armed soldiers on campus in May 1970, and heard the shots that killed four students.)

Halem himself rebelled against the developing glass conventions.

"I liked working in glass but I didn't want to work in the glass tradition. I was interested in Marcel Duchamp and the surrealists. I needed to find a voice of my own with this material," he says.

One day at a museum, "I had an epiphany," he says. "I was looking at paintings and I realized no one had addressed `glass-on-a-wall.'" He soon figured out how to flatten out cylinders of blown glass and "paint" on it with colored glass, or do reverse acrylic painting on the back of the pane. (Several flat wall works appear in the show.)

From there it was a short step to making glass boxes, with painted walls, and filling them with an intriguing media mix.

It would be a mistake to box in those boxes with literal interpretations of their narratives, Halem cautions. He intends the works to be enigmatic. But one thing about them is unambiguous; in his hands, glass has been metaphorically transformed into canvas.

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