Stretching Glass Art

A new genre--printmaking from glass--stars at Philabaum Glass Gallery

Vitrum is the Latin word for glass, and Vitreography is the name of the new show at Philabaum Glass Gallery.

But the 19 works on view are not the 3-D glass sculptures one expects at Tucson's oldest glass-art gallery. Instead, they're flat pieces of art on the wall, brightly colored prints on paper, not unlike what you might find in a printmaking gallery showing etchings or silkscreens or lithographs.

And some of them are by the most famous names in the glass-art world. Superstar Dale Chihuly of Pilchuk, near Seattle, maker of glass bridges and free-standing sculptures, converts the forms of his famous glass "Chandelier" sculptures into an explosive whirlwind of purple and red ink on paper. The late Italo Scanga, Chihuly's buddy, teamed up with him on "Nobilissima Visione," an Italianate color work offering up cypress trees and a classical Roman head in vibrating turquoise, green and orange. These colors are rendered not in the artists' usual glass, but in ink, printed on paper.

Even Tom Philabaum, Tucson's glass art proselytizer, takes to colored inks and paper, in an entertaining "Self Portrait," which pictures a giant purple fish-out-of-water in Tucson's desert. Philabaum fans will be glad to note he's included small ink portraits of his glass sculptures, in all their glittering glory, tucked into a corner beneath the saguaros.

So what's the connection between these paper works and glass? For a clue, you have to look at the second half of that invented word, "vitreography." Graph is from the Greek for writing and drawing, and the newly converted vitreographers have found a way to draw into glass.

They borrow the age-old techniques of printmaking, but instead of using metal or stone or wood, they turn to their beloved vitrum. Glass becomes the printing plate. They transfer the image onto the glass in assorted ways. Daring Harvey Littleton shot up his glass with buckshot, and inked up the resulting cracks. His "000 Buckshot State III" has a spider web of splintery lines radiating out from his bull's eye--a central red sphere.

More conventionally, the artists scratch line drawings into the glass with sharp tools, sandblast bigger areas for planes of color and tone, and reproduce images wholesale via the camera and computer in an up-to-date digital transfer process. Once the picture is on the plate, they ink up the glass as an etcher would, and send it through the printing press with a piece of paper on board to make a whole new kind of print.

All of the artists in this show learned to work in the new genre at Littleton's North Carolina studios. An octogenarian whom insiders call the father of modern studio art glass, Littleton developed--and named--vitreography some 35 years ago. Philabaum first learned to blow glass under Littleton as a grad student at the University of Wisconsin in the early '70s, and last summer, he returned to Littleton's workshop to learn vitreography.

"I didn't quite get it at first," confesses Philabaum. "All of my pre-conceived ideas were worthless. I had to start over."

But once he caught on to the complicated process, he began to love it.

"The transparency of the glass affords the opportunity to look through it," he says, allowing the artist to visualize the final print in a way that's well nigh impossible in conventional metal plate etching. And glass has numerous other virtues. At $50 to $75 for a substantial piece of plate glass, the price tag is far smaller than the $1,000 commanded by the stone slabs used in lithography. Glass plates last longer, too. Metal breaks down after multiple printings, with the etched lines widening and losing their sharpness, but durable glass just keeps on going. The final prints in a vitreograph series are as true as the first.

Glass also bestows aesthetic benefits. Colored inks, particularly those that are mixed with white, can "sour" as they interact chemically with metal plates. Glass, though, is "inert," Philabaum notes, and the color applied to it remains pure, and luminous.

Take Richard Jolley's "Day and Night," for example. A reclining female nude in bright pink floats past a yellow crescent moon above an orange male who raises his hand up against the yellow sphere of the sun. Behind them, a blue sky bursts out into fireworks, and a skyscraper city in pink adjoins blue suburbia. The sheer joy of the colors--and the simplicity of the figures--conjures up the delights of a late Matisse.

Judith O'Rourke, who works as head printer in Littleton's studio, made a Day-Glo view of sea, sky and sun in her painterly "A Romantic Sunset." The colors are so bright, you're inclined to squint at them through sunglasses. Herb Jackson's "Glass Tango" is cheerful abstraction of speckled color, with swoops of black, orange and yellow dancing with a swathe of red.

Even the artists who choose classical black and white are rewarded by impossibly rich tones. The sky in printmaker Claire Van Vliet's nocturnal landscape "Castle Rock NZ--Summer Night" is a deep, velvety black. Below its expanse, carefully drawn rocks cascade down a diagonal horizon, glistening in pure whites and grays, and mottled shadows. In painter Thomas Buechner's loose, lush architectural work, another deep black night sky contrasts with the whites of his geometric blocks and imaginary arches.

Fired up by his stay at Littleton's North Carolina workshop last summer, Philabaum decided to stage the exhibition. He got permission to rummage through the archive of prints made by assorted artists over many years. The eclectic offerings demonstrate what happens when artists jump genres: glass artists going to paper, painters going to prints, printmakers switching from metal to glass. Philabaum, who also runs a glass-art school, sent invitations out to every printmaking teacher in the state, in hopes of luring their students in to see the innovative work.

"This is a test for the gallery," he says, noting that in years past, he exhibited painting, photography and sculptures. Right now, the gallery shows only glass. "I never really wanted to do just-a-glass gallery. I feel like stretching a little bit."