Size has always played a role in art. The scale of an artwork compared to its viewers matters, and its importance isn’t tacked on like some gradual development arrived at after all other sensations have been exhausted. In fact, while cave art, the earliest evidence for a fundamental human impulse to make art, includes small carved animal and human figures that could be carried around by an individual owner, the best examples are the biggest: the dazzlingly sophisticated paintings of animals that cover the walls and ceilings of caves like so many church murals. Historians mark the end of the dark ages and the coming of the Renaissance by the slow return of monumental sculpture, a medium that disappeared as Rome fell. And while parochial 20th century painters touted what they thought was the unprecedented size of Abstract-Expressionist paintings, far larger, older canvases grace palaces and museums in Europe. Just as men have built larger and larger buildings, so they’ve looked for art big enough to fill them.
Enter glass. Artists have long coveted the unsurpassed way it comes alive in light. Its brilliant colors cannot fade over time. And, unlike bronze or marble, which stop the eye at the surface, translucent or transparent glass draws the eye into its evocative interior. The thing that limited glass was always physical, never metaphorical. Everyone knows it to be brittle in use: prone to breaking, impossible to repair, as difficult and expensive to replace as it was to acquire in the first place. Imagine, then, the plight of the glass-making artist. As it heats and cools, glass goes through chemical changes that can shatter a work before it leaves the studio. Different colors, casually melded together, can be depended on to fly apart once cold. There is only one reliable way to make glass work as an art material: keep it small. The Mediterranean cultures that invented glass limited it to personal adornment, votive idols, and such luxury wares as goblets and bowls. Eventually, a way to cheat emerged in the eastern Roman empire, known to us as Byzantium. Mosaics allowed joining many small, stable bits of glass into a single work. Stained glass followed a few centuries later, marking the rise of glass to ‘Queen of the Arts,’ and since then every large-scale use of glass has depended on the trick of somehow deploying smaller pieces in larger works. No better example is needed than the Chihuly installation in the lobby of Abravanel Hall: towers that soar into space, each made up of hundreds of hand-blown forms, hanging together on wires attached to a steel skeleton.
Yet absolute size limits on works in glass began to yield late in the 20th century, with true success coming within the lifetimes of today’s college students. Secrets known to glass blowers, combined with modern material technology, make it possible—if still challenging—to work glass closer to the size of other media. Works may weigh many pounds, and progress is being made in outdoor use and in other stressful conditions. Anyone whose experience with glass art is limited to church windows, or the annual Guild show at Red Butte Gardens, should stop by Art Access this month. Cloche, an enigmatically-named Salt Lake collective that wants to introduce Utah to the reality of just how big glass art objects can be, has chosen eight of them to make their case.
A good place to start is with “Hollow” and “Vitreous Soul,” two works by Kerry Transtrum that from a distance resemble paintings: flat, rectangular, representational, figurative. They call attention to their fused construction, ropes or rods of glass melted together so they retain their individual identities. The bones of “Hollow” outline the body, while the parallel lines in the face suggest hatching: lines drawn by a pencil moving back and forth. What distinguishes them from the small, kiln-formed projects seen in crafts shows is their size. They are taller than the viewer, larger than life figures, the size of doors taken off their hinges and leaned up against the wall. With proportionate depth, their starry skies bring to mind space, the location of science fiction, or heaven, place of spiritual visions. Byzantine domes lofted images of Christ Pantocrator, ruler of all things, like this, but the blank face of “Hollow,” like an unused sheet of lined paper, confirms the suggestion of the title that something vital is missing. The bright colors and radiant circles of “Vitreous Soul” argue that the same inner quality is now present, and named in its title. Evidence that Transtrum chose to keep the marks in these two panels distinct comes in “Friends and Foe,” a single, free-standing panel containing four congruent structures with marks falling somewhere between giant brushstrokes and swirling nebulae. Different events occur in each, with the successive forms increasing or decreasing in density, depending on point of view or choice of direction. There’s an implied narrative, but despite the suggestive title, it’s not clear what it means. That’s the problem or the genius of abstractions: whether universal or obscure, too often they can mean anything.
Another, more specific religious reference occurs in Stephen Teuscher’s “The Coat of Many Colors,” a standing glass panel in front of a similar acrylic painting. A gentle, vertical warp, a 3-dimensional knot of clear glass, and an evocation of dangling tendrils lend a figurative feeling appropriate to the title garment. If an artist and a viewer share a narrative and representational tradition, precedent supports bringing a classic subject into a new medium. If they also share an interpretive bias, even better. But the coat of many colors is only a narrative device, so artist and viewer need a prior source in order to agree on the point of the story as a whole.
Dan Cummings’ “Light Chaser” is even more abstract, as its self-referential title reveals. Here we encounter a distinction that is crucial to sophisticated viewing. Due to refraction, the appearance of a glass surface differs depending on which side it’s viewed from. Most noticeably, dents seen from outside are voids, absences; seen from the other side, they become solid masses in an illusory, interior space. The same textures and shapes on the outside reflect variously, but on the inside they seem to fill with light. In short, what “Light Chaser” looks like from one side is different from what it looks like on the other, down to specific details and the measurements our eyes and brains collaborate to make. This compound disc isn’t about itself, so much as it is about whoever views it. Like an optical illusion in three-dimensions and living color, it undermines our certainty that what we see will ever be what we get.
Jack Bowman’s wall-mounted “Carnival Glass Graffiti” is aptly named, even without the popular, collectible dishes, staples of 10¢ carnival toss games, that the title refers to. Here glass and light, eye and mind frolic on multiple levels. Bits—to use the technical term glass artists use—produced by a multitude of techniques mix it up, producing a layered confection that defies the mind’s efforts to sort out just what it sees, or how it came about. Hyperrealistic surface details float like stray thoughts, while thoughts of Jackson Pollock’s canvases are not wrong: here, as there, the illusion of simple layering yields to sophisticated results. Deeper elements, to the degree they suggest a misty background, bring time into play with distance, evoking raucous memories—like a playground just beyond the edge of a cityscape.
Two years ago, 15 Bytes reviewed Brian Usher’s tabletop-sized sculptures in Park City. His return is marked by a leap in scale. “A former shadow of myself” plays tricks on two levels; first is the difference between a matte and a reflective surface, one being all presence, the other all void. Second, a mirror base allows the two hemispheres to become free-floating spheres. A spherical, specularly-reflective surface can make a finite exterior space seem vast in its interior, but isn’t it the frosted sphere that seems infinite? The climax of the exhibit, though, may come with “If ever there was a reason.” Here the preciousness of glass is fully repudiated, not just in size but in boldness of gesture and form. Bowman’s “Carnival” is engaging and charming; Cummings’ “Light Chaser” is dazzling and spectacular. But “If ever there was a reason” is cosmic and powerful. Seen inside it, its concentric arcs wheel through vast regions of space, moving in ever greater, more stately velocity. Seen on the outside, their rough surface texture speaks of raw strength and power. The color of fire, they loom, implying circles around the viewer. If ever there was a reason, surely this is where it comes closest to making itself known.
Galleries are like Plato’s Cave: dark, lit only by shadow-casting fire. Viewing painting in a gallery gives a good idea of how it will look in a home or an office. But glass devours light, sometimes from in front, more often from behind. Cloche makes sure their art works in ambivalent light, but the only piece at Art Access that receives natural light from behind is “Friends and Foe,” and that only on one end. In Utah, with strong sunlight virtually year round, a window, or a glass wall, will bring these objects, these hybrids of sculpture and painting, alive in a way artificial light does not. Imagining sunrise behind “Light Chaser,” or sunset collaborating with “Vitreous Soul,” is to anticipate an operatic experience.
Geoff Wichert has degrees in critical writing and creative nonfiction. He writes about art to settle the arguments going on in his head.