When I first saw online images of the glass that had been selected for the Emerge 2014 show, I was puzzled. I couldn’t understand what distinguished these pieces from many of the other images of glass I had looked at online, or why they would be chosen to represent the forefront of emerging contemporary kiln-glass. Then I attended the Emerge 2014 opening at Bullseye Gallery, and realized what I had been missing—and why.
Stepping into this gallery nestled in the teeming heart of Portland’s Pearl District reminded me of walking into a Gothic cathedral after wandering the narrow, crowded streets of a European city. The gallery is at once spacious and intimate, with mysterious dark-walled inner rooms that veil the building’s true dimensions. There are no stained glass windows in this particular house of worship. Instead, the glass sits on pedestals in individual pools of light, dramatically lit from above. Some of it hangs on the wall in a fairly conventional way, while other pieces seem to float with no visible means of support. There is no mistaking the fact that this entire space has been engineered for one purpose: to showcase the uniquely numinous properties of art made from glass.
As I wandered through the crowd of people from one intriguing object to the next, I found myself weaving and bobbing, bending and cocking my head. It wasn’t enough to stand politely in front of these works, admiring them from a respectful distance as one might a painting. I felt that to really see them, I needed to constantly change my position relative to the pieces. It wasn’t enough to simply appreciate their surfaces, because glass is as much about how light moves through its interior as it is about how light hits the surface.
It became obvious to me while walking through the gallery that these artists were pushing the envelope of what defines both fine art and glass. This exhibit really brought home to me the fact that viewing glass is a participatory interaction between the viewer and the piece. Only by experiencing the play of light across/around/into the glass, could I really appreciate what the artists had accomplished. Tempted to also enjoy the tactile qualities of the work, I stopped short of touching it, as I didn’t want to break anything (but it was difficult).
Unlike a painting, where light might penetrate the first few millimeters and bounce around a bit before hitting the eye, glass is truly art that must be looked into. Even opaque glass has an aspect of interiority that sculptural objects in other mediums don’t possess. The play of light and cast shadow from the enormous sugar candy frit lacework of Kate Clements’ “Untitled (Wall)” contrasted with the serene inner glow of “Forget About Dying” by Michael Hernandez. The extremely matte texture of Cheryl Wilson-Smith’s papery, multi-layered “Winter’s Lichen” underscored the incredible scope of effects that can be captured. Glass, it seems, can become anything. And the pieces in the Emerge 2014 show represented the spectrum.
Beyond their pleasing physicality, many of the pieces were also thought-provoking. Anna Maslowsky ran sound waves through a frit-coated panel; the vibrations rearranging the particles resulted in patterns specific to certain frequencies, which she then fired and installed as the multi-part sculpture “Resonance.” In essence, she made the invisible—sound—visible through glass.
Near the end of the evening I walked into one of the interior rooms, which I recall being told was once used for cold storage in the olden days. The black walls and minimal lighting lent the space a singularly spooky atmosphere, which was reinforced by the hair-raising buzz of electricity coming from the corner. There I saw what immediately became my favorite piece in the show: “particulate pulse” by Morgan Chivers. Chivers wrote this about it: “The optically observable are a sliver of the spectrum of interwoven phenomena composing our reality – we did not perceive ourselves in the midst of an expanding mist until we observed with radio waves. Thin glass discs on a glass tube, hung from live wiring loops. Radio waves generated in each loop introduce electrical stimulation inside the sealed tube, overcoming inertness of gasses in the tube: faint glow. Surrounded by darkness, this echoes our condition: a fragile balance seen through radio waves.” Woah. Morgan was at the opening, and mentioned that the sculpture was also generating negative ions, thereby improving the atmosphere in the room. What more could you ask of a work of art?
A picture of glass viewed online may be worth a thousand words, but there is no substitute for standing in front of a piece of glass art, sharing space and light with it. The Emerge 2014 show remains at the Portland gallery until June 28. After that select pieces will tour nationally. Those specifics are available on the Emerge website here. See a short video about the Emerge show, produced by Art Beat Oregon on OPB TV here.
So what made this collection of glass art distinctive? I am still not completely certain. But what I do know is this: you had to be there. Will I buy the exhibit catalog when it comes out in June? Absolutely. If nothing else, it will remind me of what it was like to view the art and breathe the rarified air of glass, emergent.
Editor’s note: Guest blogger Lois Manno is a New Mexico-based writer, artist, and illustrator. She’s also a newcomer to kiln-glass who’s agreed share her adventures in her new medium here. She blogs about her art and other adventures – including cave exploration – at loismanno.com.