The Pittsburgh Biennial and the Pittsburgh Glass Center host 12 artists who collectively reveal that glass, despite its reputation as rigid and intimidating, is flexible with the right chemistry — and not just through the restructuring of molecules.
With the non-glassworking community in mind for this exhibition, executive director and curator Heather McElwee features the PGC's cross-pollinating residency program, Idea Furnace. The residency, dating to 2012, connects local glass artists with Pittsburgh artists who have never worked with glass.
"We selected the artists to represent a wide variety of stages in their careers, material and type of work," McElwee writes. "We looked for artists ... whose work we admired and would translate interestingly into glass." Back in January, McElwee pitched the residency to seven selected artists: They'd create new work using glass, and learn the process to create it, all within six months. The results would be part of the Biennial's eight-venue rollout. The artists included: Robert Beckman, Jeremy Boyle, Toby Fraley, Vanessa German, Juliet Pusateri, Will Schlough and Kara Skylling. They were paired with trained glass artists and instructors affiliated with PGC, including Melissa Fitzgerald, Jason Forck, Ashley McFarland, Travis Rohrbaugh and Margaret Spacapan.
The final works in the Hodge Gallery constitute a consumable spectrum of sculptural brights and shinies; of delicates and masses; of ideas versus craft. At once, the varied sensibilities in form and approach emphasize the exhibition's larger purpose of collaboration and experimentation — that relationships created in the process supersede any cohesion between the final works.
But in-cohesion can itself have magnetism. Playfulness with material and idea occupy the non-glass artists, what with their admirable beginner's enthusiasm. And the seasoned glass artists — probably because they know their medium is willed by mercurial chemistry — tend to favor precision and formalism.
One pairing involves glass artist Ashley McFarland and Artists Image Resource co-founder Robert Beckman. An aspiration toward perfection is found in McFarland's tiny jewel-like cubes, "Every Day but Two." So clear and pristine, a spec of dust intrudes its surface. However, Beckman's text-and-portrait assemblages are best viewed, at first, from a distance. Like a barrage of skillful accidents, Beckman's "Words and Pictures" are experiments in layered printmaking in glass, making glass secondary to his established art practice.
Vanessa German integrates glass elements more easily with her politically-charged doll sculptures. Like found-object storytellers, one doll is unmistakably relaying a narrative of violent death. Its tears of glass are overflowing and bulbous, becoming tumorous, even parasitic. Others have textured hair or dreadlocks made of glass and they glisten, sumptuously.
Glass simulating some other substance is a popular device in this exhibition, notably Will Schlough's simple but darling "Bubble Mower," a found-object lawnmower that blows bubbles from its top. Sorry to spoil the fun — it's iridized glass, not bubbles!
Schlough was paired with Forck, whose blown-glass sphere, cone and prism are suspended above a prepped drawing surface — a Drawing 101 sculptural trompe l'oeil. (Is that a visual double-negative?) "Geometric Sketches" mimics in glass the character of charcoal with a swirling of grey just below the matte surface of each shape, achieving a lush hand-drawn effect.
The most entertaining simulacra are Juliet Pusateri's "museum piece": a glass-encased, hand-blown goblet on a pedestal next to an oil painting of the same goblet. As with Joseph Kosuth's famous conceptual artwork "One and Three Chairs," my knock-off Gucci (it's a "Nucci"), or the woman who recently faked an entire trip to Asia thanks to the frontal-ism of Facebook, the question about authenticity is both relevant and confounding: Is that really blown glass, or bargain-bin Home Goods? What does this say about production and labor, honesty and authorship?
Glass as an art material can be both utilitarian and impractical, as illustrated by the paired works of Jeremy Boyle and glass artist Travis Rohrbaugh. Boyle's kinetic installation "Untitled (Glass Birds)" forces glass into a nonsensical functional role despite its resistance. (Read his statement if you ever wondered how to tediously drill through plate glass.) Boyle's tiny, see-my-guts machines make wee sounds, while the only glass element is substrate on which the circuitry is wired. Though visually undetectable, the chirping sounds seem to be that of something scratching on glass, or at least my brain is completing that circuit.
Meanwhile, frighteningly delicate, Rohrbaugh's model airplanes capitalize on glass' beauty while simultaneously spotlighting its fragility. He states: "It is wonderful to consider the time invested in an object that can only make one flight."
Though "form follows function" is a layman's understanding of glass, this exhibition illustrates that artists new to the medium who don't accept that notion will go to lengths to expand its potential. With Idea Furnace, the PGC has leveraged its assets — local talent and a well-equipped glass studio — to exchange and create new, salable works. It's a pretty hot idea.