One of my prime treats as a child in New York was a visit to the Steuben Glass Co.'s showrooms, where seemingly wondrous visions etched in icy crystal were available to view free to visitors who couldn't possibly plunk down the staggering sums to own one of the little sculptures.
Since then, the "artistry" of Steuben has come to seem more a matter of craft than art. Meanwhile, a new generation of art glass has invaded the galleries, prompting renewed thoughts about the limitations of this medium.
At the Muckenthaler Cultural Center in Fullerton through March 6, "Surface Details: Glass Exploration" presents the work of 21 artists who sandblast, sand-cast, slump, fuse, blow, carve, etch, enamel, electroplate and even deliberately break glass to create a variety of special effects.
The question is whether all this adds up to more than pleasant decoration.
Gift shop whimsy is the order of the day here, with critters that have "cute," saleable names (Damian Priour's "Primitive Pet Series" and Ke Ke Cribbs' "Tequila Monster") and plates with yuppie food-craving motifs (Molly Stone's "Sushi Plate" and Joan Irving's "Asparagus").
Some of the zippy, smartly crafted pieces could be used on the table, but most are bright accent pieces for the home that has everything, including a good earthquake insurance policy.
These are upscale "conversation pieces," charming baubles that are faintly amusing (like Richard Marquis' color-drizzled "Teapot Trophy") or pretty (like Joel Philip Myers' intensely colored glass containers) or in tune with the vagaries of style in women's accessories (like Susan Stinsmuehlen-Amend's chunks 'n' shards wall pieces).
Almost without exception the work in the exhibit is blandly extroverted and aims to please: characteristics of home accessories, not art. (A more sensitive, even poetic alternative in the show is the work of Bertil Vallien, vessels with dreamily inexplicable scenes.)
Once upon a time, there was a need for museums and cultural centers to display contemporary decorative arts as an antidote to the depressing level of factory-made items for the home and office. Some of the great names in architecture and design lent their theoretical expertise to the problem of making a chair with good, strong lines or crafting a futuristic set of dinnerware.
But times change, and although there will always be ugly manufactured products, this just happens to be the era of consumer style-consciousness. Especially in affluent Orange County, we are inundated with information on how to look and what to own. There are shops galore that carry clever handmade decorator art.
Guest curator Ruth T. Summers' rationale for this show is that the artists "in general have exhibited a more personal approach to details, specifically to the surface and how surface effects the work." But where, in glass, does surface leave off and depth begin?
"SURFACE DETAILS: GLASS EXPLORATION"
Continues through March 6
Muckenthaler Cultural Center, 1201 W. Malvern Ave., Fullerton.
Gallery hours: Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 5 p.m.
Information: (714) 738-6595