Brittle Stars 

An exhibit at Gallery A shows that glass art is more than Chihuly's blooms.

click to enlarge Joe Grant, who holds a master's degree in fine arts from Virginia Commonwealth University, is represented in the VCU exhibition by works evoking nature as well as the 1920s and '30s. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Joe Grant, who holds a master's degree in fine arts from Virginia Commonwealth University, is represented in the VCU exhibition by works evoking nature as well as the 1920s and '30s.

Rain? Drugstores put umbrellas near the register. Snow? Hardware stores move the shovels up front. So it makes perfect sense that when the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts offers dazzling works by glass master Dale Chihuly, other artisans with a stake in the craft find it opportune to show their wares. This is the spirit of "(GLasS) PHANTasMOGORia (aka the Glass Show)," showing until Dec. 1 at Gallery A in Shockoe Slip.

If the title is impossible to decipher, don't despair. The exhibition is full of pleasures. It includes 10 artists associated with Virginia Commonwealth University's craft and material studies department, including professor Jack Wax, who curated this exhibit.

Throughout the gallery, glass is employed, celebrated, even in unexpected ways. Some pieces are achingly delicate; some works one might associate with the Italian glass-making traditions of Murano. Some pieces go in startlingly innovative directions, reading as line drawings. And then there are three artists who employ no glass at all. But this is OK, because it suggests that the department is graduating artists dealing in big ideas first, and making the choice of medium a secondary factor.

Joe Grant, based in North Carolina, would be a kindred spirit to those who stoke the furnaces in the Veneto lagoon. But if his finished works appear traditional, the shapes and imagery he infuses elegantly into his works pull from moderne decorative arts sources from the 1920s and '30s. His black and yellow "Crystal Heliconius" channels silhouette patterns of the '20s. In "Tiger Hybrid," an art deco spirit meets Roy Lichtenstein. The forms of both works, like his sensual, amber "Aurora Admiral" with its perky, nipplelike eruptions, evoke enlarged butterfly wings.

Richmond-based Sarah R.B. Mizer embraces more sober design traditions with her bravura entry entitled "wallpaper pattern no.1 (Virginia's Executive Mansion)." The florid, rococo lines of a classical revival wall covering have been meticulously (maybe compulsively) replicated in the thinnest turnings of clear glass. Mizer has added contrast by covering some of the pieces in gold leaf. Occupying a wall space 9 feet high by 8 feet wide, a piece that must have been hell to install is also a showstopper.

Megan Biddle, who lives in Pennsylvania, explores the possibilities of glass-making as abstract line drawings with two pieces that, in many ways, couldn't be more different. "Further for Now 2012" is a series of five, neutral-toned glass, rectangular "boxes" of modest and varying sizes delicately veined with gray. Each is displayed on its own wooden shelf. Biddle's "Bless the Bad Guys," on the other hand, is nothing but veins: It fuses slender, busted, metal umbrella forms with blown glass to create a huge, spidery piece that appears to emerge from within a gallery wall.

Nanda Soderberg reveals dry humor by placing 30 brown beer bottles on six shallow wooden shelves in "High Brew." But she's tampered with each bottle, giving each distinctive handles. Some bulge and some appear to dance: It's sandwich glass meets Tim Burton.

Maestro Jack Wax is represented by a refined, lyrical, white glass wall piece that suggests four branches extending from a larger tree limb. At the point where the limb was severed from its trunk, strands of thin, loose wires emerge and dangle. The wires lighten the mood considerably.

Sayaka Suzuki of Richmond delivers the most fashion-savvy pieces in the exhibition. In "Lavishly Bovine," jade-colored glass has been molded into jaw bones. In "Spiritual Denouement," where pairs of glass antlers have been assembled to appear as crowns of thorns, Suzuki is making wearable art. Her "Landscape and Rainbows," a curvy alignment of small, pastel-hued, tubelike elements might have been inspired by the Lancôme cosmetics counter at Nordstrom.

And finally, Fumiaki Odajima, who lives in Japan, Kazue Taguchi of New York, and California-based Hiromi Takizawa use no glass in their offerings.

Odajima's untitled inkjet prints are printed on plain white paper, but his waves of undulating colors evoke the ethereal qualities of glass. Takizawa's assemblage (with Angus Powers), "Glass in Space," includes a Styrofoam cooler, twine, tape, a sport camera, a makeshift parachute and a Federal Aviation Administration certificate. But the most visual element is a small yellow plastic dachshund. The space-helmeted toy dog was lifted into space by a five-foot weather balloon over the New York state countryside in June. A video camera recorded the flight. The title of video artist Takizawa's "Glass in Space" loop, a delightful highlight of this exhibition, apparently alludes to the dog's helmet, which is plastic.

The range of "A Glassy Stare" is broad, so it's worth a good long look. S

"(GLasS) PHANTasMOGORia" will be on display until Dec. 1 at Gallery A in Shockoe Slip. For information, visit gallerya.biz or call 771-5454.


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