Earlier this year, when Glass Quarterly published a special issue celebrating the 50th anniversary of the studio glass movement in the United States, brothers Einar and Jamex de la Torre were surprised to find themselves included on the magazine’s list of the 50 most relevant artists for the next 50 years of glass art.
“In general our collectors have been more art collectors than glass collectors,” Einar de la Torre says. “To a lot of that world, we’re not glassy enough.”
Glassy enough would mean hewing more to the conventions of studio glass production — turning out elegantly understated vessels or updating a historic Venetian technique with a slight postmodern twist. The de la Torre brothers aren’t so submissive. Their sculpture fuses the visual culture of the brothers’ Mexican and Catholic roots with a passion for globally inflected kitsch and hot button political opinions, nodding as much to the legacy of Jeff Koons as to that of Harvey K. Littleton.
For your typical studio glass collector, the de la Torres’ “Tanque You,” for example — a virtuosic blown glass sculpture of a weeping military tank whose plump pink lips gently encircle a phallic black cannon — might be a hard sell.
Yet the San Diego-based brothers seem to have arrived, or to be on the cusp of doing so, in the world of art glass.
This week they land in St. Petersburg for an exhibition titled Home for the Holidays at Mindy Solomon Gallery, which champions artists who work at the complicated intersections of contemporary art, clay and glass. The idea of being home is metaphorical — though the de la Torres have never lived in Tampa Bay, they and their work find welcome at Solomon’s genre-bending, rule-breaking gallery, where the brothers’ loving-but-irreverent glass vagina homages to the Virgin Mary are unlikely to offend anyone on the eve of Christmas. (Solomon briefly considered titling the show “Jesus Doesn’t Live Here Anymore,” but decided that would be going too far. “Because I respect my neighbors, they respect my eccentricities,” she says.)
By their own account, the brothers’ hybridity is rooted in an early border crossing. When they were teens, their Mexican-American mother brought them from Guadalajara to Dana Point, a community halfway between San Diego and L.A., leaving behind their father, a talented but alcoholic architect. While a student at Cal State Long Beach, Jamex, now 52, learned lampworking by chance through a part-time job with a glass tchotchke-maker. Soon he and Einar, who turns 49 on Dec. 20, opened their own commercial glass-making shop. Within a decade they were working as artists, both individually and in collaboration; by the early 2000s, their sculpture was the seamless output of Einar and Jamex de la Torre.
To create a work like “Dark Nature,” one of the pieces included in the exhibition, the brothers fuse several key processes. A trio of spiky, black glass flowers — one lined with ridges like clear glass teeth — protrude from the two-by-three foot, wall-mounted piece; the shapes were made during a workshop the brothers taught at Penland School of Crafts in North Carolina. Inside the flowers’ centers (which suggest sleek, fleshy labia but also the halo of light that perpetually engulfs the Virgin of Guadalupe) tiny erotic figurines of women lay in repose. Around the flowers, under a coating of glass-like epoxy, floats a garnish of translucent blue flowers, butcher knife refrigerator magnets and a human heart made of pinto beans cast in resin.
The glimmering shrine might not look like a representation of orthodox faith, but its invocation of femininity both sacred and profane, so to speak, is intended as a celebration of love and life.
“It’s my mother, it’s my sister, it’s my lover,” Einar de la Torre says.
Along with the glass blowing and lampworking that the brothers use to sculpt and draw figures and forms in glass, avid shopping for mass produced knickknacks is a cornerstone of the de la Torres’ work. Flea markets and dollar stores around the world — a 100 Yen store in Japan, the equivalent in Brazil — provide fodder for the assemblage of objects that makes up each of their sculptures. A blown glass figure of a speechifying Hamlet, masked like a Mexican wrestler with a sacred heart icon beating from his chest, stands atop a cast reproduction of a Jello mold filled with bottle caps; a figure called “Animaluchador” (roughly, ‘soul wrestler’) balances atop a doll head inside a glass jar. Such objects — the byproduct of purposeful, artistic hoarding — are kept at hand to help construct the elusive narrative of each piece.
“We’re not crazy about the term found object, because that implies you stumbled upon it,” Einar de la Torre says.
Among their latest creations is “St. Fab,” a wall-mounted piece that features a faintly blue-bodied saint suspended against a digitally altered photograph of a cathedral. Devoid of Christian decoration, the church might be confused with a mosque, and with a gold bindi on his forehead St. Fab resembles a bald Krishna. The multi-faith creature, whose hands curve outward in a sassy benediction, turns out to be the patron saint of coming out. A gift to the world from the de la Torre brothers, just in time for the holidays.
“Because it’s not like he’s the first gay saint,” Einar de la Torre explains. “That would be impossible.”