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Glass is a mutable and far-reaching medium, ubiquitous in our windows and electronic screens, yet still a harbinger of taste and luxury in chandeliers and stemware. Working with glass can be rigorously technical, requiring precise temperature control and chemical balances, but it also lends itself to playful material experimentation and creative problem-solving. For the traveling exhibit New Glass Now (currently at the Renwick Gallery), the Corning Museum of Glass in Corning, New York, put out an open call for glass artists to submit recently produced creations, and a panel of artists, curators, and writers selected the final works. The result is a show that takes the temperature of a discipline that is constantly innovating and evolving, capturing works that are often poetic, brash, and even a little bit camp.
Sometimes it’s best to ignore the wall text and let the work speak for itself, but here and elsewhere in the exhibit, the panelists offer crucial insight into the complex processes that went into making the show. C. Matthew Szösz’s “Reservoir” features glass spun on a rope-making machine to create thin threads that could be woven into a basket, a fact that most probably wouldn’t know just by looking at it. A collaboration between artists and researchers, “Lapi Boli Project” features pâte de verre, or glass paste, that has been thrown on a pottery wheel like clay to make vases. An accompanying video breaks down the process and shows it in action; more of the pieces could use similar explainers to highlight the more head-scratching techniques.
A key component of glass is obviously its tendency to break, but only one piece, “Things Change” by Maria Bang Espersen, is in serious danger of busting. The artist’s clear vases are embedded with rocks and other debris, some with fractures beginning to form, and the wall text suggests that the underlying tension could cause them to shatter at any moment. Other works appear to be more durable than the average Mason jar. Nadège Desgenétez’s sensual body-inspired forms are blown, mirrored, and hand-sanded to give them the uncanny appearance of brushed metal.
The rich tradition of material exploration in glass art is evident in Karina Malling’s still life “Transcendence,” which displays a remarkable range of experimentation, including pieces that have been cast, polished, chiseled, and melted. The result is an incredible array of colors and textures that mimic everything from concrete and sponges to crystals, showcasing the vastly different treatments that can be done in glass art. A series of stop-motion animations by Tomo Sakai goes all the way back to the root of glassmaking itself, using yet-to-be-heated glass sand to form moving images.
Glass is perhaps not immediately thought of as a vehicle for protest or social criticism, but several pieces in the show upend that preconception. Tamás Ábel’s 33” Rainbow is a mirror covered in a rainbow flag of glass, which the artist used to reflect colors onto landscapes in his native Budapest and in D.C. for a video piece that works as an affirmation of queer existence. Suzanne Peck and Karen Donnellan’s “Blow Harder: Alternative Lexicons for the Hotshop” is a delightfully rude yet thoughtful unpacking of the very sexualized language used in glass hot shops. If the term “glory hole” seems juvenile, try the more feminist “G-spot” or the loftier “chamber of the glorious corona of life-affirming heat” instead.
The functional objects on display are no less inventive or technically proficient. Beakers, vases, and lamps are all given their due, as are countless glasses, tumblers, and bottles. It’s enough to make anyone feel the need to give their bar cart a serious upgrade.
A supplementary section titled “New Glass Then” refers back to another Corning exhibit that traveled to the Renwick in 1979, New Glass: A Worldwide Survey. This display reinforces the Renwick’s history of boosting glass art as a discipline deserving of serious artistic consideration and pulls pieces from the gallery’s permanent collection by artists who participated in that show. These older works pair well with the more modern collection that precedes it, adding context to the newer pieces and demonstrating the various ways the medium has expanded. The wall text for a work by Dominick Labino explains that the artist was an engineer and a pioneer in the glass art field, relentlessly curious about the seemingly limitless properties of this material. According to the Smithsonian, Labino once said, “There’s no end to glass…no end to it!” and it turns out he was right.
New Glass Now runs to March 6, 2022, at the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, 1661 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. renwick.americanart.si.edu. Free.