The Toledo Museum of Art is ground zero for the Studio Glass Movement of the 1960s, which had modest beginnings in a garage on the TMA’s campus. Although women were integral to the movement, their work originally attracted less attention than that of their male counterparts. In recent years, this is no longer the case, and the Toledo Art Museum’s exhibition Fired Up is a celebration of the robust international presence of female glassblowers. Fifty works comprise this exhibition, the first in America to shine the spotlight on glass art by contemporary female glass artists. The show isn’t bound by any particular theme, but all the works on view are emphatically aesthetic objects, entirely nonfunctional, and playfully push the boundaries of the medium beyond what many of us are likely used to seeing, revealing the surprising and perhaps under-appreciated versatility of glass.
The exhibition’s venue is the TMA’s glass pavilion, its chic minimalist aesthetic the collaborative efforts of Tokyo-based architects Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa. Nearly all its interior and exterior walls are made of glass, and there’s not a right-angle in the entire building, making the space seem at once disorienting and ethereal. On a clear day, the glass sculptures within are dramatically backlit by the sun, an all-natural special-effect that allows the colored glass to lucidly blaze at full intensity.
The works in Fired Up playfully flaunt the surprising dexterity of the medium. April Surgent’s Sea Ice Moves in Spring, inspired by her residency at the American Science Foundation, is an atmospheric and moody tryptic portraying, with photographic intensity, floating chunks of a melting iceberg, calling attention to endangered ecosystems. The work is made of glass, but seems just as easily classifiable as a painting. Similarly, Flag, a collaborative work between Laura de Santilliana and Maestro Simone Cenedese, though freestanding like a sculpture, is a contentious evocation of a Mark Rothko painting.
Emily Brock’s sculptural diorama-like portrayals of a bakery and a café are a playful tour de force. Possessing all the anecdotal nuance of a Norman Rockwell painting, her unpeopled dioramas of 1950s-era commercial spaces are staggeringly detailed. We see pastries, cheeses, and meats on display, tables in need of bussing, and even crumbs on the floor. Though people are absent, their recent presence is implied. In her Diner, we see an open newspaper on the counter, an apron lying on the floor, and the door to the kitchen (or is it an exit?) ajar. As with all her work, Brock teasingly suggests a narrative, but ultimately leaves its interpretation up to the viewer.
The exhibition’s pièce de résistance is Karen LaMonte’s Glass Dress, a free-standing gown, its contours and sinuous folds enveloping, it seems, an invisible figure standing in elegant contrapposto. It works beautifully as a purely aesthetic work of art in its own right, but the sculpture also comments on fashion as an exterior shell that, like a suit of armor, variously masks and accentuates the person within. It also brings to mind the extent to which the clothes and brands one wears define one’s personality and social standing.
We interact with glass continually, especially taking into consideration the LED screens on our computers and smartphones which virtually run our lives. But outside the gallery, glass seems like a medium we only encounter for its functionality. Fired Up demonstrates that this is unfortunate, given glass’s unusual properties (behaving both as liquid and solid) and its undeniable, luminous beauty.
Fired up is on view at the Toledo Museum of Art through March 18. Information about the museum’s Glass Pavilion can be found here.