Holding Light: The Seen and the Unseen

Local Arts Reviews

<i>Dolorosa </i>by Mark Calderon, 1996
Dolorosa by Mark Calderon, 1996

Holding Light: The Seen and the Unseen

Austin Museum of Art -- Laguna Gloria, through December 31

A while back, I encountered a radiant white-on-white painting. The catalog photo I'd looked at in advance had utterly failed to describe the drama of the surface, varnished in places, dull in others, etched with a subtle pattern. "That's the way it should be," an artist-friend assured me. "If the work itself isn't infinitely more dramatic than the reproduction, there's a problem."

For some of the sculptures in "Holding Light: Contemporary Glass Sculpture," the current exhibition at Austin Museum of Art -- Laguna Gloria, such problems exist. The murky mystery of Mayme Kratz's house against a darkened wall is absent in the sunny first gallery. Ruth King's swirling glass tornados similarly pale in the room. For other works however -- those by Stacy Neff and William Morris -- the photographs in the small, nicely designed exhibition catalog don't begin to reveal the intense sensuality and allure of the objects themselves.

To begin at the end of the exhibit, Morris' work is featured in the museum's upstairs gallery, sequestered from the rest, royally ensconced in a room with darkly painted walls and lit so skillfully that the objects' shadows take on a critical life of their own. It is a jaw-dropper mini-version of an installation by the artist called Myth, Object, and the Animal, which travels to museums in Virginia, Montana, and Indiana over the next year.

Once a studio assistant to Dale Chihuly, whose slick and swirled glass forms have been shown before at Laguna Gloria (and throughout the world), Morris uses glass in a way that evokes both its origins and its future. Intense, translucent colors -- blood red, pomegranate, sun yellow, and rose -- recall the heat of the furnace in which these objects were blown and pulled and prodded into existence. Some dangle like otherwordly bone fragments or bask on pedestals in the shape of Coptic jars, bison, and birds, forms the artist describes as Egyptian, Cycladic, and Native American.

Three of the works -- my favorites -- are composed of large, wall-mounted boards with metal rods poking forward, each one supporting what appears to be a small colorful trophy or shard. These bowls, teeth, ancient oil jars, birds, vases, hearts (with valves), and plumb bobs may be notched or nicked as if they'd been found during an archeological dig, evidence of a very old, very advanced civilization. Each tiny object brings to mind a precious relic. Bird Panel, 1999 displays only bird shapes, slick graceful forms. The other two panels mix bowls and birds and animals. Whether you come close and study one object at a time or draw back and try to apprehend the rhythm established by the whole, this work delivers.

Downstairs, Stacey Neff presents a number of huge, biomorphic creations including Sea Pods, which appears in the catalog as a flat thumbnail sketch of a photo. In person, Neff's sculptures appear as creatures snared from the depths of the sea, where no human has ever gone before. Others look as though they were cultivated in a nuclear garden in the moonlight or as if they appeared one morning in the artist's back yard, an alien surprise. This is glass? Perhaps they feel like jellyfish to the touch or maybe like a pepper pod. No, you can't touch, but you ache to try. Neff's blown glass and mixed media pods and blobs and claws make you want to take risks equal to those this artist must undertake to produce each graceful form.

In the gallery with Neff's work, curator Jean Graham has mounted a statement about the exhibition. Referring to "Holding Light" as the "final exhibition to be presented during the 20th century at AMOA -- Laguna Gloria," it speaks about expanding our notion of glass as a sculptural medium. No problem there. Most of these works could easily hold their own in a gallery filled with bronze, carved wood, or steel sculptures. In fact, many of these artists incorporate other materials in their work. Daniel Clayman's smart and elegant cast glass forms are often swaddled in bronze, and Bertil Vallien frequently combines steel and wood and glass (although I much prefer his cast glass disembodied heads resting on pillows of light). The artist's idea or concept dictates the medium of expression. These are not "glass artists" looking for unconventional ways to use their medium, but sculptors realizing ideas through the use of glass.

But presenting objects made of glass does require unconventional or, at the very least, inventive installation techniques. Clear or translucent sculptures such as King's tornadoes or Susan Plum's fluffy confection (a fibrous vase with butterfly wings) or John Buck's jar with potato recede when set against white walls, stark lighting, and colorful companions such as Mark Calderon's hot pink Dolorosa. Asked to compete for attention in a multi-form group show, see-through works nearly disappear just as you might expect.

One exception is Judy Hill's translucent female figures, which happily occupy a single niche along the stairway. Three more figures (rendered in glowing color) stand side by side in a small case in the upstairs hallway, empowering each other. But John Buck, also relegated to the upstairs hallway, fares less well. His large glass jar in which a glass potato has begun to sprout is easy to overlook and awkward to regard in any event. I might have deleted Buck and Plum from the exhibition entirely as they are under-represented and poorly positioned. Better to give other work, like that of Austin artist Damien Priour, more room to shine.

Three sculptures by Priour have been relegated to a spot outside in front of the museum -- a most uninspired sculpture dump hardly worthy of the nationally recognized sculptor's work. Three tall limestone-and-glass sculptures have been plopped on the lawn, set on rough red-brick temporary platforms. Priour deserves better, which is why you should go to Lyons Matrix Gallery and catch his exhibition of large and small sculptures on display through December 4, when the gallery will close its doors after eight years of business.

Have I given the impression that glass art, or sculptures which incorporate glass, can't hold their own without the help of extraordinary display techniques? That was not my intent. But I am happiest when the drama captured in catalog photographs is equal to or surpassed by the experience of walking through the museum's galleries. A group exhibition like this one represents a kind of colloquium, a gathering of objects rather than people, for the purpose of meaningful dialogue. If some participants shout and others can't be heard, the outcome is skewed. Important points of view disappear like, well, clear glass in the sunlight.

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exhibitionism, arts reviews, visual arts reviews, classical music reviews, holding light: contemporary glass sculpture, austin museum of art : laguna gloria, amoa, jean graham, damian priour, mayme kratz, ruth king, william morris, stacy neff, daniel clay

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