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Breaking the Glass Ceiling by Creativity

May 02, 1996|BENJAMIN EPSTEIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

TUSTIN — The first question you might ask upon entering "A Survey of Contemporary Glass," now on display at Tustin Renaissance Gallery, is "Where's the glass?"

But it's right there before you.

"When you look at work by William Morris, at the texture and the quality of the glass, unless you really know glass, you'd have a hard time believing it is glass," said Nancy Weiss, a Seattle glassblower who selected the artists for the show. (She was reached by phone at her day job as an institutional investor.) "Glass is not all transparent and glossy."

Clearly. With the exception of Martin Blank's sculptural torsos, see-through and colorless glass is the last thing this show is about.

The 27 artists work in blown glass, fused glass, kiln-cast glass and flame-worked glass, in a variety of surface techniques including sandblasting, acid-etching and electroplating, and in a kaleidoscopic array of colors.

Styles range from the primitive art of Morris to the millinery creations of Brian Brenno, from the pendants and brooches of Julie Mihalisin to enormous wall hangings by Sabrina Knowles and Jenny Pohlman.

Weiss and gallery owner Bruce Thacker estimate that serious glass artists in the country number only in the hundreds, so the survey may be more comprehensive than might be imagined. But appreciation of the form is growing, Weiss said.

"Glass is being recognized more and more as an art instead of a craft," Weiss said. "The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York recently opened its first contemporary glass exhibit. That would seem to signal that studio glass has finally arrived."

Two of the artists in the local show, which features established and emerging North American artists--Dale Chihuly ("Basket Series") and Morris--also are included at the New York show, which is international in scope.

If a preponderance of the glass artists showing in Tustin are from the Pacific Northwest, there's a reason. According to Weiss, the contemporary studio-glass movement began about 25 years ago with the establishment of the Pilchuck Glass School in Seattle. There are more glass studios--or "hot shops," so-called for the high temperatures involved in glass work--in Seattle than in any other city in the United States.

There are hot shops elsewhere: Local talent at the exhibit includes 21-year-old Kent Kahlen of Orange, who contributed a "Scepter Series" of wall sculptures and several perfume bottles.

Among East Coast artists, Florida-based Robert Mickelson's delicate, humorous "Eden's Cup--What's So Dangerous About a Little Knowledge?" is similar in spirit to works by his friend Shane Fero of North Carolina; the subject of Fero's "That Chromosome Thing," has two faces, three breasts, male genitalia and holds a sign that says "XY."

"All these artists love to stretch the limit of glass," Weiss noted.

"Jeff Crandall, for instance, weaves together two very different forms of art--glass and poetry. He fractures the glass, then writes a poem about fractured relationships. He blows a spherical ball of glass, and on the ball is a poem about a relationship going round and round and spinning around this globe." Crandall serves on the Pilchuck faculty.

The works are for sale, ranging from Kahlen's perfume bottles at $70 to Morris' "Suspended Artifacts" at $25,000.

Tustin Renaissance is in a former Wells Fargo bank; at night, according to Thacker, the vault protects the jewelry--and his computer. Seems there was a robbery just after the gallery opened in August.

"They broke through the door, grabbed the computer and ran," he said.

Nothing else?

"Nobody steals contemporary art," said Thacker, an artist himself. "There's no market. I always say if someone stole my painting, I'd be flattered."

* What: "A Survey of Contemporary Glass."

* When: Through May 15. Open Tuesdays-Saturdays, 10 a.m.-6 p.m.

* Where: Tustin Renaissance Gallery, 300 El Camino Real, Tustin.

* Whereabouts: Take the Costa Mesa (55) Freeway to the Irvine Boulevard exit and head east. Turn right on Yorba Street, left on 1st Street and right on El Camino Real.

* Wherewithal: Free.

* Where to call: (714) 838-6140.

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