On view: January 21 - March 7, 2015
Geographies of Innovation
To study the history of glass is to study geography. In each era, distinct regions shaped the production of glass either through the minerals in their soils or by fostering a vibrant culture of glassmakers and glass thinkers. Material Location is premised on the notion of New York City as one such innovation center in our time. The works of the seven artists included in this exhibition provide a snapshot of the diverse technical and intellectual approaches to glass being undertaken here and now. Their contributions address three key areas of inquiry: the material’s physical properties, its history in vessel making, and its role in scientific discovery.
Since the beginning of glassmaking nearly 5,000 years ago, the mutability of its physical state—its fluidity when hot and brittle rigidity when cold—has spurred fascination and contemplation. The ancient Mesopotamians devised elaborate rituals to ensure glass’ proper melting (1). Their Egyptian counterparts referred to glass as “the stone that flows.”(2) Much later, in 19th century England, a moral desire to hew close to the material’s inherent traits led art critic John Ruskin to declare, “all work in glass is bad which does not, with loud voice, proclaim,” either “its ductility when heated” or “transparency when cold."(3)
While material exploration is at the core of many of the works in Material Location, the impulse is at the forefront of pieces by Jes Fan and Biba Schutz, both of who wonder loudly at the mystery of fluidity and the magic of transparency. Fan’s Mirrors freezes four undulating Victorian-style hand mirrors within a tank-like vitrine. Because of a quirk of glass optics, they appear to levitate and multiply within the tank, evoking glass’ polarity: durable, hard, and sharp on the one hand; soft, fluid and molten on the other. The duality of glass is also at the heart of metalsmith Biba Schutz’s Half Full series. Combining flameworked and blown glass bubbles with sliced bubble-silhouettes, these ethereal brooches and necklaces are at once restrained and redolent of the immediacy of glassworking. The ripples and folds of their immobile forms recall the material’s molten life and overlay the breath of the glassblower on the chest of the wearer.
Despite its ubiquity today, the technique of inflating glass with air—glassblowing—was not invented until several millennia after the material’s development. When it was discovered, around 2,000 years ago, glass’ status and utility were forever altered. In the course of just a few decades, this efficient technology shifted glass from an exclusive material used to make small, time-intensive objects for a relative few into a pervasive part of everyday life for all members of Roman society. By making cheap containers available for the first time, the blowing process also enabled the widespread trade of beverages and foodstuffs across the Roman Empire in a system that prefigures the modern distribution of, say, Coca-Cola. In fact, it was the innovation of a similarly disruptive technology in the early 20th century, the glass bottle blowing machine, that paved the way for both Coca-Cola’s contemporary market saturation and the subsequent omnipresence of plastic beverage bottles.
These two technological disruptions—glassblowing and factory automation—and their cultural impacts are at the core of works by Shari Mendelson and Jane Bruce. For the last five or so years, Mendelson has transformed found plastic bottles into elaborate renditions of late Roman and early Islamic glass vessels, collapsing the trajectories of the two historical periods, and in the process, staking a claim for the plastic bottle as an artifact of our time. The reductive, postmodernist vessel sets of Jane Bruce’s Prime Number series, on the other hand, refer to the more recent standardization of glass bottle shapes spurred by mechanized blowing machines. Appearing in triptych sets of mold-blown geometric vases in primary colors, black, or mirror, Prime Numbers also slyly comments on the fundamental role of serial production even in the highest-end hand blown glass.
Operating alongside its cultural impact is glass’ catalytic role in science. In the 17th and 18th centuries, innovations in glass formulae and polishing techniques led to the invention and refinement of the telescope, allowing scientists detailed views of the distant heavens for the first time. Concurrently, alchemists experimenting in glass uncovered previously unknown properties of metallic oxides leading to the development of novel formulations for gold ruby, chalk, and opal glasses (4). Since the late 19th century, innovations in glass, from lenses and light bulbs to TV tubes, computer screens, and fiber optics, mediate our engagement with the world around us. These discoveries and the processes undertaken to achieve them animate the works of Sarah Michalik, Ben Wright, and Stefanie Pender.
Michalik’s Lines of Communication and Arena, give form to the communication infrastructure that undergirds contemporary life. Fragile and transparent, they signal the near invisibility of these systems to the everyday user and underscore their vulnerability. In A Short History of Phytoliths and A Transmutation of Reality, Wright also highlights unseen glasses, drawing attention to the overlap between silica (the main component of glass) and the biological world, as well as to the glass microscope lenses, light bulbs, and projection units inherent to the process of learning. Pender, for her part, has adopted the guise of an early modern chemist, gathering the silica, alkali, and calcium to create a glass-like material in her Cloudy is the Stuff of Stones. Taking the form of a full size human skeleton made hazy and crystalline through its arrested transformation, her piece serves as a large vanitas hinting at the impossibility of perfecting human knowledge.
Taken together, the works in Material Location demonstrate the breadth of a glass culture cognizant of its material history, but not beholden to it. Each of the artist’s pursuits—whether Fan and Schutz’s ruminations on materiality, Mendelson and Bruce’s investigations of vesselhood, or Pender, Wright, and Michalik’s inquiries into science—pay homage to and advance glass’ historical legacy. The fresh life they bring to this ancient material demonstrates both the vitality of glass and the richness of New York City as a venue for innovations in glass making and glass thinking.
About the Curator: Susie J. Silbert is a curator, historian, and educator based in Brooklyn, NY. Her recent projects include SPRAWL, an interdisciplinary exhibition interpreting urban development and the catalogue Beyond Craft: Decorative Arts from the Leatrice S. and Melvin B. Eagle Collection at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Silbert lectures on the history of glass at the Rhode Island School of Design, is a board member of the Furniture Society, and a 2014 - 2015 Emerging Leader in the New York Arts. She writes on ceramics for American Art Collector.
About UrbanGlass: Founded in 1977 as the New York Experimental Glass Workshop, UrbanGlass was the first artist-access glass center in the United States and is now the largest. Through exhibitions, studios, classes, and publications we support the use and exploration of glass as a creative medium.