Glass has been around for thousands of years. We're surrounded by it. And yet its status as an artistic medium remains a bit tentative. The problem is functionality. A crystal vase or bowl, for instance, may indeed be a thing of beauty, but it was produced with function in mind. It's meant to be used, to serve a practical purpose.
To make the transition from craftsmen to artists, glassmakers had to break free of functionality. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the work of Dale Chihuly, easily America's premier glass artist. Chihuly established the Glass Department at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), where he both studied and taught; learned classic glass blowing techniques during a Fulbright fellowship in Venice, Italy; and founded the influential Pilchuck Glass School in his native Washington state.
Chihuly typically begins with a recognizable functional form -- a bowl, a vase, a pitcher -- and then distorts it to the point where no one could mistake it for the original object. A bowl, for instance, becomes an abstract, asymmetrical vessel with irregular curves and ridges. What might have started out as a tea set mutates into a little cluster of forms nestled inside a larger vessel.
The four Chihuly pieces in the "American Glass" show are perfect examples of his approach. They're from his Venetian series of the early '90s, in which he started with designs based on Venetian Art Deco glass from the 1920s, then embellished them with dramatic flourishes. (The actual glass blowing was done by the Italian master Lino Tagliapietra. Chihuly lost sight in his left eye after a car crash in 1976 and since then has often worked with collaborators who execute his designs under his supervision.)
For Gilded Rose Venetian With Chartreuse Green Coil, Chihuly strips away the possibility of functionality by topping a large vaselike structure with a couple of glass leaves and a thick, snaky coil of brilliant green glass that arcs above the rim of the piece in grandly exaggerated spirals. The intentionally garish Pink Venetian is a big mottled vase of sorts that has sprouted jagged, gold-tinged protrusions that render it useless in any conventional sense.
The other dozen artists represented in this traveling show, put together by the Smithsonian Institution, address the issues of glass as art in a variety of ways. Paul Joseph Stankard, for example, doesn't stray far from functionality with his "botanicals," which are essentially still paperweights. He creates amazingly detailed miniatures of plants, flowers, seeds, berries, insects, and even tiny human figures in colored glass, then embeds them in clear glass, so that they seem to float in space.
Veteran glass artist and teacher Dan Dailey edges away from functionality by making his pieces slyly anthropomorphic. At first glance they appear to be large minimalist vessels. On closer inspection they take on the quality of human heads, although highly stylized ones, thanks to the spare, graceful features Dailey sculpts onto their surfaces. For the cool-blue Serenity (1994), a small yellow orb of glass stands in for an eye, a long teardrop-shape ridge forms a nose, and an off-center squiggle of red suggests a mouth, all coming together to summon up the mental state of the title.
Cappy Thompson, who has taught at the Pilchuck School, uses large pieces of conventional glassware as a sort of substitute canvas. Instead of blowing the glass herself, she commissions gaffers (master glass blowers) to create the pieces for her. She then paints vivid scenes from mythology, folklore, and religion on them in enamel, which is fired to fuse it to the glass. In her work here, she has drawn her rich imagery from Hinduism for such pieces as Lord Krishna and Me Standing in the Great Water and Dancing With Ganesha (both 1993).
William Morris, who worked as a gaffer for Chihuly in the early '80s, also incorporates his interests in other cultures into his glass. For the "Canopic Jar" series represented in this exhibition, he drew on the ancient Egyptian tradition of using lidded vases to hold the embalmed entrails of the Pharaohs. His vases are given a rough, weathered-looking finish -- in the case of Buck (1992) and Gazelle (1995), the surfaces are covered with "drawings" in the style of prehistoric cave art -- then topped with realistic glass sculptures of animal heads.
A couple of the artists escape functionality in more whimsical ways. Richard Marquis does it by way of scale. His Coffeepot Sample Box (1993-94) is a small glass case holding 11 tiny glass coffeepots in various colors and patterns, complemented by such items as a glass die, glass rods, and a bird-shape salt- or peppershaker. Teapot Box #3 (1993) is a variation on the theme. In his "Teapot Goblet" series from the early '90s, Marquis defies function by fusing ornate goblets to his teapots, so that both are rendered useless.