MillvilleMuseum of American Glass, Wheaton Arts and Cultural Center
April 12 – December 31, 2019
Glass is a seductive, scary medium: it’s hot, it breaks; it requires artists to toss their creative visions into molten infernos, and to collaborate. Independent curator Julie Courtney felt no hesitation whatsoever when she invited eight visionary artists to play with fire; to work in a medium relatively unfamiliar to them and create large-scale glass installations in collaboration with Skitch Manion, Wheaton glass Studio Manager, for Emanation 2019. His infectious enthusiasm fueled their spirited ambitions to transcend glass as decorative craft; to cajole from the medium’s mercurial transparency the movement of sound and the shape of breath; and to etch with its cutting edges new metaphors for social injustice, apocalyptical global destruction, and the fragility of human life.
Wheaton Arts’s entry reception hall, designed as a faux Victorian parlor with red-flocked wallpaper, is a funky foil for contemporary art, but Martha McDonald and Laura Baird’s installation Phantom Frequencies (all works 2019) bowed to its décor. McDonald, well-known for her site specific performances in historic venues, and Baird, a singer, songwriter and instrumentalist practicing eclectic music genres, designed a wild orchestral ensemble: squiggling glass horns soaring like celestial trumpets; little glass bottles affixed to a metal-hoop “skirt;” a clothesline of glass bells. McDonald donned the skirt for a performance. The bottles clinked. She sang atonal songs, a call and response to Baird who blew notes on clear glass horns obeying scales all their own. Channeling musical sound through crystalline, almost invisible forms, set the audience in the moment of fleeting phenomenon, a surround of echoing tonalities evaporating through space and time.
Allan Wexler’s reverse approach to evanescence imagines the invisible as an architectural construct. Straddling the absurd and the rational, the “wearable” architecture in his works visualizes the complex underpinnings of those natural but critical life processes that we take for granted. For Hear, Wexler invented a wooden shoulder brace to attach a pair of blown glass megaphones to a mannequin’s ears. For Vessicles, he fitted another mannequin with a pair of breast-shaped glass orbs bearing hardware faucets instead of nipples. Wit weds metaphysical reflection in these sculptures; they are indeed outlandish constructions, but so are they poetic conceptual armatures representing the human form as living architecture. For Wexler, the human body functions physically as a support system and protective covering and psychically as a sanctuary: like the house that is our home, it protects the self from life’s storms.
Other artists stomp hard political ground. Jo Yarrington, for example, who studies the history of the nuclear industry and uranium mining, found in the museum’s collection of Depression era Vaseline glass—made with uranium— the spark of an idea for Uranium Game. Located inside a 19th century schoolhouse on Wheaton Art’s grounds, this “board game” consists of ninety-two 4.5” bocce ball-like glass spheres set in formation around a “board” of black and grey sand. Each sphere encapsulates photo-decals preserving in glass the history of the atomic bomb. When visitors press a large red button to “activate” the installation, a jarring war-mongering voice-over evokes horrific thoughts—from gun violence unleashed in our public schools to the threat of global nuclear destruction.
Jesse Krimes’s Strange Roots speaks to the need for prison reform. Krimes, who served prison time as a non-violent offender and survived incarceration by making art, set in niches along opposite gallery walls a series of paired glass orbs constricted within and bubbling through wire chain-link cages. These orbs are color matched but disparately sized to visualize the varied ethnic populations of New Jersey and their comparative prison populations. Green “Asian” orbs, relatively equal in size, indicate an Asian prison census proportionate to the general Asian population. But a black glass sculpture representing the number of incarcerated Black Americans looms disproportionately larger than its mate, a stunning minimal expression of oppressive racist and social inequality. A disarming tree of life, grimly recalling Billie Holiday’s chilling song Strange Fruit, dominates this same gallery. Curious glass and plastic “fruit” sculptures encasing disturbing racial and sexual images dangle from its dead branches, alongside biological specimens in states of decay. Seductively beautiful and lyrical at first glance, this sorrowful tree’s symbolic roots dig deep into our racist justice system.
Karyn Olivier’s Shell Midden/Memorial, a room-sized display case filled with three tons of fetid oyster shells (baked to kill bacteria) also highlights the plight of those marginalized, forgotten or just ignored. The shells filling the glass cases block the viewer’s glimpse into what would normally hold a vibrant display of glassworks—a trope for the residents of Shell Pile, New Jersey, a shantytown of Black oyster workers who suffered in the late 1950s but found no respite from the travails of an industry ravaged by parasites.
On a lighter note, Tristin Lowe’s Pining for Mystics: walks, talks and molten rabbit holes evokes childhood with whimsical glass figures set within a fantasy forest. Sprouting multiple limbs—hands, feet, and phalluses protruding from the sides of bottles—they are clearly inspired by Surrealist cartoons and Pop Art. But like their prototypes this imaginative breed sires some perverse characters.
The sound of shattering glass is a strange touch in a glass museum, but a perfect medium for Richard Torchia, an artist who doesn’t like making things as much as he likes to capture the sublime: moments that are “here” until they are not. Grrndr, a giant self-destructing kaleidoscope, met his standard of impermanence. To make it he combed through barrels of foundry discards for recyclable jewel-colored and clear glass, placing the fragments in a 20 inch diameter drum set on a motor typically used by the workshop to grind rejected glass. As the motor churns, the shards patterning the kaleidoscopic design disintegrate to sandy dust. When all’s been reduced, Torchia replaces it with another drum of freshly rescued glass. The crunching sound follows us through the museum’s galleries, spaces filled with creations old and brand new. We think of evolution and renewal, how creation rises up from dust.