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Glass Touched by Genius

One of the unmatchable macchias

For a long time, the notion of taking glass seriously as contemporary fine art made me a little nervous. It was at best decorative and at worst utilitarian. A heavy glass orb streaked with color or encasing dried flowers was something to spruce up a coffee table. A vase, however exquisite, was mainly something for holding and displaying other things. Art or craft? The question hardly seemed worth asking.

That was before I took in a small but impressive glass exhibition at the Boca Raton Museum of Art more than a decade ago. The show included some especially striking pieces by Dale Chihuly, who's probably the world's best-known artist working in glass, and his work opened my eyes to some of the aesthetic possibilities of the medium.

Then, a few years ago, working for this paper, I visited the Habatat Gallery in Boca Raton and discovered an extraordinary array of glass art, including an extensive selection of Chihuly works. Chihuly's reputation runs to extremes in the world of art criticism -- to judge from the results of a recent survey of critics I wrote about a few weeks ago, he's adored by some, despised by others, with not much middle ground -- but there's no doubt that he has been enormously influential in getting people to take glass seriously.

At any rate, if I had any lingering doubts about the glass-as-art issue, they would be dispelled by "Fire and Form: The Art of Contemporary Glass," a glorious show now packing them in at the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach, and with good reason. Included are a hundred or so works by more than 30 artists from all over the world, and while there are disappointments here and there, overall the show is a stunner.

In fact, it's stunning right from the beginning. The entrance to the exhibition is a small, dimly lighted gallery that houses Ten (2002), an installation by Polish artist Anna Skibska. It consists of ten large, oblong components that look sort of like cocoons, five on either side of a roped-off passageway, suspended from the ceiling and dramatically illuminated. At first glance, these odd shapes resemble nothing so much as chicken wire, but they're really amazingly intricate networks of "lampworked" glass (fashioned with a small blowtorch), mazes of delicate filigree.

Some of the pieces in the first gallery beyond the entrance raise my old concerns about function and décor. Michael M. Glancy's small blown-glass urns on plates of industrial glass, accented with gold, silver, and copper, are undeniably beautiful, but they strike me as largely decorative. It's the same with Paul Stankard's work. As much as I admire his attention to detail in the tiny glass flowers that seem to float inside a trio of small pieces, the bottom line is that they look like unusually fancy paperweights.

On the other hand, the tall, elegant vessels by Dante Marioni, in rich, warm oranges, transcend such quibbles. They come across as too impossibly fragile for use in the real world -- they belong in a display case, not on someone's sideboard. The standout in this gallery, though, is Italian Lino Tagliapietra's Drakkar (1998), a long, slender, opaque piece that simultaneously summons up the shape of South Florida's ubiquitous palm husks as well as that of a barge that might have borne Cleopatra. The ends culminate in what look to be the heads of a snake and a dragon. (Inexplicably, there's no photograph of this piece in the show's lavish catalog.) Tagliapietra's nearby Samba do Brasil (2000) couldn't be more different: a simple metal table displaying 11 colorful blown-glass vases, most of them tapering to a curving, elongated tip. Any one of them would be impressive on its own, but their cumulative charge is something else altogether.

And so it goes through the next few galleries: pieces that uneasily straddle that line between art and craft. The middle stretch of the show is dominated by whimsy that sometimes works and sometimes seems forced. The whimsy builds to an almost hallucinatory pitch with the stained-glass lightboxes of Judith Schaechter, who lays her concerns on the line with a quote posted on the wall: "I think I'm a fairly normal human specimen. My main interests are sex and death, with romance and violence the obvious runners-up."

Schaechter's work, however, suggests that her tongue is planted firmly in her cheek. Bigtop Flophouse Bedspin (2001) is a wonderfully garish, cluttered composition featuring a clown whose dreams are a delirious mixture of the cartoonish and the nightmarish. The Student Gynecologist (2001) is pretty much what the title suggests, with a young man peering intently into an anatomical model on a tabletop.

For Cyclone and Cyclone Fence (1998), this merry prankster juxtaposes a little girl casually leaning against a chain-link fence with a Wizard of Oz-style tornado dancing across a field in the distance. And with Funeral for Elliot (1999), Schaechter takes her mordant wit to twisted heights: The piece is made up of a number of different-sized panels, the largest of which features the Elliot of the title, a dead cat laid out on a cart that's pulled by another cat, with an angelic cat hovering above the deceased. The rest of the panels are filled by more than two dozen mice and/or rats, all mourning poor Elliot with what are almost certainly crocodile tears.

The lightboxes, which use stained glass in wildly inventive ways, come right before the grand finale of "Fire and Form," and I suspect that guest curator William Warmus positioned them there intentionally. They're perfect for getting museumgoers to let down their guard, so that they're unprepared for what they'll find around that last corner.

The exhibition concludes with the glass-art equivalent of the end of a fireworks display: a grand, cavernous gallery filled with some of the show's most breathtaking pieces. The center of the space is dominated by an installation of seven large, colorful Chihuly pieces owned by the Norton -- the artist's trademark vessels with the undulating ridges, dubbed by Chihuly as macchias. They're perched on stands of various heights and so perfectly lighted that the light seems to emanate from within. And this is as good a place as any to point out that the lighting for the "Fire and Form" show as a whole is especially well-conceived and -executed.

The macchias, made in the early to mid-1990s, are visually complemented on one wall by four large acrylic studies that echo their glass counterparts, as well as by four Toots Zynsky pieces nearby. Zynsky works with what's identified as "filet-de-verre" (fused and thermo-formed colored glass threads), but the gist of it is that her work is very much like the Chihuly macchias, except more ragged and textured.

A similar resonance is at work on the opposite side of the gallery, where several almost architectural pieces are juxtaposed to play off one another. Some are the result of a partnership between two Czechs, Stanislav Libensky (who died last year) and Jaroslava Brychtova. Their big slabs of dark, molded glass draw on roughly defined geometrical forms, and if you add, say, Daniel Clayman's tall, triangular obelisk Diverge (2002) to the mix, one whole side of the gallery is sort of like the pyramids of Giza rendered in glass.

If I had room, I would write in greater detail about Tom Patti's ghostly pale orbs, softly lighted from below; or about Swedish artist Bertil Vallien's iconic glass heads, towering atop pedestals; or about William Morris' faux-Egyptian urns with animal-head lids; or about any number of striking pieces to be found throughout "Fire and Form." Inevitably, however, I would omit something worth seeing. And so I have just one word for you: Go.


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