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Arts & Culture

'Contemporary Glass Sculpture: Celebrating the 50th Anniversary of Studio Glass'

Orlando Museum of Art's colossal art-glass exhibition is a visual treat

Photo: Stephen Knapp, Transformed Orange, License: N/A

Stephen Knapp, Transformed Orange

Photo: Tim Tate, Mermaids Past Their Prime, License: N/A

Tim Tate, Mermaids Past Their Prime

Contemporary Glass Sculpture: Celebrating the 50th Anniversary of Studio Glass

through May 12 |
Orlando Museum of Art,
2416 N. Mills Ave.
407-896-4231 |

The thing to remember, Hansen Mulford tells me, is that I'm not looking at an object. "You're really looking at light," he says as the gallery's sharply focused beams glint off the crystal-clear frames of his glasses.

Mulford, longtime curator of the Orlando Museum of Art, is showing me around the museum's current art glass exhibition, and we're discussing the properties of glass, perhaps one of the most difficult and dynamic materials an artist can work with – the way it refracts and reflects light, its fragility, the sheer danger of working with the molten or shattering stuff.

Mulford is justifiably enthusiastic about this colossal exhibition of contemporary glass sculpture, celebrating the art form's rough half-century anniversary. It's difficult to place a specific date on an art practice – ideas resist carbon-dating – but art historians generally consider the defining moment to be a pair of 1962 workshops introducing methods of glass production on a small scale, which enabled individual artists to create "studio glass" in their own workspaces without a factory full of skilled workers. Those workshops were presented by artist Harvey Littleton and scientist Dominick Labino.

Prior to Littleton and Labino's pioneering methods, of course, glass had been made for millennia – it's been traced back to 3500 BCE – but ancient glass was either utilitarian (vessels) or decorative (beads). Even the prized creations of the Venetian artisans of Murano and the Czech glassmakers of Bohemia and Silesia, places that have had active glassworks since the 13th or 14th century, were considered merely craft; glass wasn't considered art until a single artist could envision and execute a work.

To comment upon each piece in this show, or even each piece I loved in this show, would take more space than I've been allotted, so I can only recommend that you go. The sheer variety lends credence to that old saw "something for everyone"; truly, any viewer will find something to enjoy, maybe even fall in love with, here. And museum staff informed me as we went to press that it's been extended through May 12, so there's little excuse to miss it.

Now, let's confront the gorilla in the room: Yes, famous glass artist Dale Chihuly is represented in this show. Mulford diplomatically refers to Chihuly as a "big statement" guy: "What sets Chihuly apart is his ability to make everything he does the biggest, the most complicated, the most over the top." It's true that Chihuly's work (produced by studio assistants since a surfing accident cost him the use of one shoulder) is technically marvelous – huge bravura agglomerations of twisty bulbs, ruffly baskets, spiny blobs in glowing colors – and it's also true that the world of contemporary art glass owes no one so large a debt as Chihuly, whose interminable (some might say self-aggrandizing) boosterism for the form has made him a pop-culture persona, complete with requisite Simpsons cameo. (I find his work to be the sculptural equivalent of a Leroy Neiman football painting – but to each her own.)

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