Could it be that we’re rapidly becoming repetitious?
An exhibit of autonomous glass pieces addressing thorny subjects is buying us some time.
The dusty remains of “L’Empire des signes” and “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” can be found inside distinctive goblets that are labeled with details on the book burnings. Nobody is mourning them more than their owner, Antonio Riello. It comes as a surprise to learn the Italian artist voluntarily destroyed his favorite books to serve them in these beautiful urns mimicking 16th- and 17th-century Venetian designs. “Ashes to Ashes” lets the viewers inspect and choose what knowledge to consume based on title, author and publication year. Think of it as a wine cellar and those casting shadows as the books’ lingering souls.
Mr. Riello is one of 33 artists who conceived the 46 glass works on view now through July 2 at Boca Raton Museum of Art. His is not the only piece to take a sacrificial approach in “Glasstress,” an exhibition bringing together artists from all parts of the world who don’t typically work with this historically devalued medium.
“As a curator, I didn’t focus on the medium but the content,” said Kathy Goncharov, curator of contemporary art. “The work just happens to be in glass.”
There is enough space separating the pieces to keep the show from feeling cluttered or rushed. The focus is on the daring shapes, the striking colors and provocative themes ranging from identity and social injustice to colonialism and environmental causes.
Take Michael Joo’s “Expanded Access,” which consists of shiny stanchions usually found in airports and banks to guide our steps or define a waiting line. The mirrored bars succeed at controlling our movements so long as we play along, suggests the New York City-based artist. But they are not strong enough to contain us if we go off script. “Cardiac Arrest VIII,” by South African artist Kendell Geers, delivers a similar warning with police batons made of glass. The batons are identical and hang neatly and undisturbed in the shape of a heart. There are no bloodstains. No cracks. A call for social change is all it would take to activate these spotless decorations into menacing weapons.
From a distance, Chinese artist Song Dong’s suspended black Venetian chandelier seems the type of artwork we would want to take home, brag about and happily stare at all day long. Until we realize this five-tiered alien entity has a name — Glass Big Brother — and IT is monitoring US. Those features we thought to be lovely motifs from afar are nothing less than LED-lit surveillance cameras. They are positioned at every level to capture every movement in the room. There is no need for the organism to stretch out its arms and grab us. Its presence and implications make us uneasy already.
A different level of discomfort is introduced by Hans Op de Beeck’s “The Frozen Vanitas,” which is the remake of an ancient advice against human vanity and excess. The Belgian artist serves us grapes, a skull, and candles all in opaque glass and in the tradition of Dutch memento-mori still-lifes from the 17th century, which rendered earthly achievements futile against the inevitability of death. The discomfort comes from spotting symbols of our modern times (a lighter, a cell phone) on Mr. Beeck’s table and realizing he is pointing at us.
Not all pieces exude a dark attitude or rely on it to get a reaction. It is the stunning hue and intricate design of Portuguese artist Joana Vasconcelos’ “Blue Velvet” that leaves us speechless. The blue Murano glass chandelier hangs dramatically from the ceiling and brightens up the mood with LED lights and sparkling golden sequins. The long blue limbs are dressed up in polyester and wear handmade golden woolen crochet at the top. The result is electrifying.
If “Glasstress” had nothing but “Blue Velvet” and “Glass Big Brother” to offer, it would still be worth visiting if only to see firsthand how glass can become remarkable. But no piece recalibrates our brain, and injects greater admiration for this medium, quite the way Javier Pérez’s bleeding chandelier does.
“Carroña” (“Carrion”) features a mutilated Rezzonico-style chandelier being torn apart by stuffed crows that are happy to claim the reward of a fight in which they took no part. It hurts to watch. To set the dramatic stage, Mr. Pèrez voluntarily smashed his spectacular red creation to pieces and left a translucent trail of blood on the floor. The sacrificial tone witnessed in earlier pieces is microscopic compared to this. The scene is raw and violent and feels real. Knowing the destruction was intentional, and those sharp beaks are not real, does nothing to suspend our strong belief that an actual creature is being eviscerated right before our eyes.
All the displayed pieces, including “Carroña,” were created at the Berengo Studio on the island of Murano, Italy. Two experienced installers traveled from Venice to put them together, said Ms. Goncharov. Nothing broke.
“Glasstress” is a bold attempt at weighting glass’s emotional power against well-known contenders by letting it breathe and shine on its own. Rather than conforming to fit into a predetermined weight class, the works have carved out a league of their own. As it turns out, glass can be looked at — not just looked through. ¦