'Glassnost' at CMU gallery represents enlightened ideas

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Patricia Bellan-Gillen combines different imagery in the foreboding "Wake/Liquid of Contention" on display in "Glassnost" at the Regina Gouger Miller Gallery, Carnegie Mellon University.
By Mary Thomas
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

One of the perks of the city's 2007 focus on glass is the opportunity to see examples of the myriad ways artists, in the United States and abroad, are pushing the medium beyond functional, pragmatic applications.

This expressiveness may be as robust and decorative as the flamboyant "Chihuly at Phipps: Gardens & Glass" or as self-contained and thought-provoking as pieces in a rich exhibition, "Glassnost," at the Regina Gouger Miller Gallery, Carnegie Mellon University.

The show title is derived from the 1980s Soviet policy that encouraged openness and tolerance in the public sphere and, while some of the works exhibited have a political edge, the emphasis is on receptivity to a new medium for many of these artists and to a spirit of collaboration.

"Lidded Trunk Vessel #18" by Ron Desmett, part of "Glassnost."
Click photo for larger image.

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Each of the gallery's three floors evokes a different experience.

An installation on the first floor by Hilary Harp and Suzie Silver, "Nebula," seduces through the glowing color and light that are generally associated with glass, but here emitted mainly by other media, such as video and back-lit photography. Small, amorphous clear glass sculptures rotate on turntables and sparkle under projected lighting, further confusing conventional media attributes. The effect is simultaneously lively and soothing.

In contrast, the time-stopped stillness of the second floor courts weighty reflection.

Patricia Bellan-Gillen's exemplary "Wake/Liquid of Contention" derives its impact from a combination of historical, mythical and mystical imagery. A flotilla of masted ships glides across an ocean of plate glass printed with the sea serpents and wave flourishes of ancient marine maps, all held aloft by posts of glass tumblers. Flanking this, and adding to the work's foreboding, are two child-sized straight back chairs extended in height by branches lashed to their legs, each surrounded by a cluster of ships. The whole is reminiscent of a game board upon which is being strategized the destiny of Western civilization, the calm of the passing ships only tenuous.

Also casting a contemplative shadow is Andrew Johnson's commendable and moving "TILL," a stark tableau that speaks of man, time and the land, and their intertwined histories. Within an area partitioned in the manner of an archaeological dig lie 18 agricultural hand tools -- axes, sickles, machetes. Their frosted glass heads and pale wooden handles are reminiscent of skeletons similarly excavated, a scythe becoming an unobtrusive rendering of an art-historic attribute of the Grim Reaper. Pairs of holes in two of the hoe heads turn them into masks, suggesting the convergence of tool and user as each bent toward the land, and perhaps the artificiality of contemporary constructs of pastoral purity.

Johnson writes of the associations of the title to farming, a sense of time and monetary systems via cash registers. These braid together in a critique of global agri-business practices that profit investors while impoverishing -- economically and nutritionally -- those who work the land, producing social conditions that have begun to lead to suicide. "TILL" beguiles with its simplicity, its commentary seeping through the consciousness as archetypical echo as much as articulated voice.

Three clever works by Carol Kumata employ chandeliers -- as symbol of status, wealth and power, and as symbol of the futility and pull of constructed desire.

Inside "Crystal Palace's" freezer, a glass and ice chandelier slowly evaporates and fragments, the preposterousness of lighting a freezer with a chandelier paralleling that of attempting to secure social mobility through the acquisition of equally out-of-place objects. The sparkly and beautiful "Fragile," with its subtle undercurrent, and an untitled work (temporarily not viewable because of a malfunctioning motion timer) pit notions of reality against illusion.

On the third floor are works by Kathleen Mulcahy and Ron Desmett, the only two artists in the show whose main medium is glass, and an ambitious collaboration between them and Martin Prekop.

Desmett's superb vessels -- black and opaque -- would seem the antithesis of glass expression. But these vital organic forms gain satiny presence from their material, hovering between charred remains and the muscular tautness of a whale's arched back. "Lidded Trunk Vessels" recall the trees from whence they derive, but also have the containment and presence of seated bishops or Buddhas.

Mulcahy combines rusted steel and glass in painterly wall-hung works that twinkle with light that is reflected from and caught by their gently undulating surfaces. Strings of glass objects adhered to the surfaces pull them out of serene remove.

Prekop combines 200 black-and-white photographs, some of them negatives, with 68 small glass sculptures by Mulcahy and Desmett in "House," a three-wall surround of imagery derived from his O'Hara house and garden. Mirrored panels reflect the objects and make the viewer a part of this engaging work, which conflates modernist and folk, general and personal, immediacy and memory.

Several of the exhibited works -- by Mulcahy, Desmett, Kumata and Harp and Silver -- have been displayed previously at the Pittsburgh Glass Center; further commentary on each may be read at post-gazette.com/ae.

"Glassnost" continues through July 13. Hours are 11:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays (closed July 4). Admission is free; 412-268-3618 or www.cmu.edu/millergallery.

Cleveland bus trip

Silver Eye Center for Photography is sponsoring a bus trip July 17 to the exhibitions "Icons of American Photography" and "Ansel Adams: A Legacy" at the Cleveland Museum of Art and the Cleveland Institute of Art respectively. Reservations required at 412-431-1810; $65, $55 students and members.


Post-Gazette art critic Mary Thomas may be reached at mthomas@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1925.


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