If Duncan McClellan has anything to say about it, St. Petersburg will soon be a national destination for glass art. He’s off to a great start, flying in visitors like Fritz Dreisbach — one of the pioneers of American studio glass — for a demonstration during the opening of his new hot shop earlier this year, and organizing exhibitions that bring the work of nationally known glass artists to his green compound in St. Pete’s Warehouse Arts District.
McClellan’s latest exhibition, Washington Glass, pulls in five key members of the Washington Glass School, an innovative Washington, D.C., institution fueled in part by public art commissions as an earned income venture. (Last year their revamped glass doors for the Library of Congress took the place of bronze originals by Lee Lawrie, the Rockefeller Center sculptor, which were lovingly preserved.) The show includes the studio’s two co-founders, artists Tim Tate and Erwin Timmers, as well as co-director Michael Janis and instructors Sean Hennessey and Allegra Marquart. That’s a lot of talent just a short trip away for Tampa Bay art lovers.
Maybe because I’ve never done glass sgraffito, I was most impressed on a technical level by Janis’s pieces. Who would want to practice this technique of drawing with glass powder dispensed from a miniature sifter and shaped with an X-Acto knife into what looks like a skillful charcoal rendering? Only someone with supernatural patience, a keen eye for tonal gradation and, as it happens in Janis’s case, a former architect. A handful of his pieces take on archetypal subjects like death, justice and love, rendering them as human characters set against metaphysical landscapes — e.g., an enormous clock face upon which passersby tread behind the fallen corpse of death. To create a panel, Janis draws on multiple layers of clear glass then fuses them together in a kiln. The end result is a multilayered, grayscale tableau through which a viewer’s eye passes over time as if watching a black-and-white film.
Tate’s is the most recognizable art. If you’ve never seen his glass bell jars containing miniature video monitors, they’ll feel like a revelation — tiny, self-contained worlds, poetic snow globes for grown-ups. If you have seen them (say, at the 2012 Global + Local exhibition at St. Pete’s Museum of Fine Arts), they feel a bit like old friends whose jokes you already know the punch lines to: ever a welcome sight, but comfortably familiar rather than enthralling. The three on view at McClellan’s gallery treat themes of literary obsession with alternating seriousness and absurdity. For instance, “Virtual Novelist” juxtaposes two bells containing different views of a typewriter on which an unseen actor types the same sentence in perpetuity.
Works by Timmers come off as some of the smartest in the show. Made of recycled window glass, they ostensibly qualify as eco-art — how Timmers describes his pieces — an idea that I don’t find particularly interesting. (At least, not in the rarefied context of an art gallery; a public art context, where other ethics or educational goals might motivate a commission, is different.) The pieces do fine as art without any qualifier. Two wall-mounted sculptures of cast green glass reproduce the forms of a common egg crate and packing materials as minimal, abstract reliefs — deliciously transmuting trash into treasure.
Even better, a series of pedestal-mounted casts titled “What We Leave Behind” immortalizes the disposable technologies of yesteryear by decade. Timmers collages objects, whose impressions glimmer out at us through bottle-green glass, that elicit deep chuckles of familiarity — the form of a Sony Discman in the piece devoted to the 1990s, or aviator sunglasses for the 1970s. Along with levity, the sculptures offer a darkly humorous perspective on certain cultural phenomena through visual metonymy — the disappearance of the money clip of the 1960s and subsequent multiplication of credit cards, the waning of cigarettes, beverage fads. These time capsules paint us as silly but lovable creatures.
It feels like a cop-out to attribute Hennessey’s peculiar talents as an artist to his background as a theatrical set and props designer. But somewhere along the way Hennessey picked up a knack for creating uncanny effects with glass relief sculpture. His framed panels are painted with loose brushwork and lit from behind so that they look like a cross between vintage photographs and stained glass, out of which protrude low relief shapes like a hanging light bulb or a human hand pressing toward the viewer. They’re eerie, as if each panel contained a ghost, or a wisp of forlorn memory, tapping around inside. A favorite is a large panel depicting five padlocks suspended against a golden backdrop of antique keys titled “The Promises That Remain Unbroken.”
Marquart’s pieces are marginally less wow-inducing than those of her colleagues — they didn’t really surprise me or offer new insights into glass — but her narrative panels, made of colorful fused glass, are visually striking and flawlessly made. Each offers a witty parable enacted by human or animal figures, such as the story of three envious crows who adorn themselves with peacock feathers and gaze, Narcissus-like, into a reflective pool.
In all, Washington Glass leaves a lasting impression. Chalk up another win for Duncan McClellan Glass.