December 1, 2010
By Mary-Beth Laviolette
(reprinted with permission from Galleries West Magazine, Summer 2010 (p 36-37))
It’s possible that contemporary glass is overtaking ceramics as the pre-eminent craft in Alberta – not so much in terms of number of practitioners, but in quality and range of work, breadth-of imagination and engagement with contemporary society and visual culture. The evidence is in the energies and input of emerging artists, and the ongoing commitment of established artists.
Organized by the Calgary Glass Initiative, this is the second survey of glass art from Calgary and surrounding aeas mounted at the Triangle Gallery since 1995. Together with the recent Alberta Craft Council display of Glass 2009 in Edmonton, there is the impression that the instructional efforts of the Alberta College of Art + Design and Red Deer College, as well as the collective and shared studio arrangements of many Alberta glass artists, is paying off handsomely. Glass 2009 featured $90,000-worth of work acquired for the Alberta Foundation for the Arts collection – including pieces by Martha Henry, Tyler Rock, Julia Reimer, Tim Belliveau and Ryan Marsh Fairweather, who also appear in this exhibition.
In the last couple of decades, contemporary art glass has sometimes been undermined by a reputation of being like candy floss: big, decorative and supremely precious. In Calgary Glass Now, the work ranges from blown to cast to factory-produced (incorporating items like glass teacups and commercial mirrors), and the spirit is less about a precious medium and more about a material, with all its peculiarities. In that regard, there were some surprising moments, like Lori Sobkowich’s “An Unguarded Prayer.” Made in response to the turmoil of Afghanistan, Sobkowich transforms a traditional Christian-themed stained glass church window with motifs from central Asia. Natali Rodrigues’ “Begegnung” resonated in the same way – a deceptively simple plaque of cast and polished glass in which the spiritual idea of grace is given material form.
There was also real substance in Jamie Gray’s commentary-rich, “Have Your Cake,” and Tyler Rock’s “Cannon,” as well as “Catch” from his Riel Rebellion-inspired Almighty Voice series. For visual impact, Gray’s large-scale wall-mounted work, with its image of outstretched hands, was the more effective of the three works and I wondered if Rock’s two artefact-filled bell jars were too small in scale for their content. Martha Henry’s flameworked figurative sculpture of bird women featured in “Metamorphosis” also raises questions of scale. These mythological figures were beautifully executed, but teeny-tiny, tipping over into cuteness.
It should be mentioned that Rock’s and Gray’s work would have looked fine in a contemporary art exhibition, crossing the arbitrary and sometimes silly divide between craft and art. Other work that easily made that leap – Robyn Weatherley’s photograph-laden “Retrieval” which investigated memory, and the gender themes of Liz Bowen’s bodily “Ornamentation of Sustainability.” In a more modernist temperament, there was also Robert Geyer’s stunning minimalist composition of pulled glass rods, “Alberta Color Gradient,” with its references to 1960s colour field painting.
A few words should be said for glass art of a purer sort, the kind that revels largely in what this material excels at, especially with light and colour. David Blankenstyn, Bonny Houston and Barry Fairbairn have each contributed a vase-shaped work – a more traditional format – but given their sheer beauty, is anything else really needed? Glass veteran Jim Norton’s “Floor Lamp” is far more elaborate in function and appearance, but it’s also part of the reason why there is much that glows in this latest survey.