Tuesday, April 20, 2010

10:17 p.m.

Venice, through the Looking Glass
Thoughts on 3. Visions in Glass, at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

From Left: Laura de Santillana, Christiano Bianchin, Yoichi Ohira
Photos via Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

I couldn't go to England because of a big, loud volcano that Jon Stewart named Kevin. I went to see Venice instead, at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.

Venice. 3 Visions in Glass is the first stop on a tour of three cities (Kansas City, Naples and Paris), that illuminates the Venetian side of life, showing the diverse work of a trio of glass artists, all of whom work on the island of Murano.

I've always had a difficult time thinking critically about sculpture (although, you'd think with a design background, sculpture might be a more comfortable place for me to think about art), but in the past few months, I've enjoyed the challenges that come with experiencing an unfamiliar media, asking stupid questions and diving right in to find out what I really think.

I had never thought about seeing a city through glass. Although you could take a stained-glass window tour of the entire country of Italy, I didn't initially believe that contemporary glass sculpture could emotionally place me in present-day Capulet-Montague territory. This group exhibition changed my mind.

I was first drawn to the minimalist slab works of Laura de Santillana. There is a two-yet-three-dimensional quality to her work, and the color field style is reminiscent of a Mark Rothko or Morris Lewis painting. But thank goodness it isn't a painting; the color and the frostiness of the glass work together in different lighting to exude a certain moodiness. Her slabs are inspired by pieces of glass found on the shore that have been worked away by the sea. Dark grays, charcoals and ambers give off an earthy glow. And then, washes and splashes of Merlot and Kryptonite green are stretched through a series called Flags, which creates even more opportunities for variations in light and reflection. Although the colors alone draw one into her work, the complexity of a seemingly simple slab is what ignites the hues. Moments and sips of air are trapped within glass confines — as if there is a gap between two window panes — forming small pockets of liveliness that evoke large, flat bubbles from deep in the sea.

But Santillana doesn't stop with the slabs. She also makes bright, large, metallic vessels that do not look like glass at all. In a way, they resemble oversized, crunched-up water bottles strewn along the shore. Overall, the artist's use of surprising color — tangerine, sparkling amethyst, ultramarine — produces an ethereal quality to the everyday objects that happened to provide inspiration.

Christiano Bianchin's glass sculptures work well when placed in the room with Santillana's. Like Santillana's slabs, there is a mid-Century modern quality to Bianchin's sleek shapes, partly covered in intricately crocheted hemp, which immediately transport us to the coast, where fishermen pull in their nets. There is a seriousness to both Bianchin's opaque and transparent pieces, but flea-market trinkets adorn the tops of urns, adding a humor to his work, hinting again at the sea's endless surprises of contextless objects washed ashore.

Bianchin's sculptures do not necessarily stir up a particular emotion; rather, they evoke imaginings of Venetian history. A series of polished, oblong vessels resemble modern-day interpretations of ancient effigies or tools. Although they are clearly works of art, Bianchin's pieces imbue an intentional practicality — perhaps in another life they stored one's jewelry, sweets or stones from the seaside.

And then, Japanese-born Yoichi Ohira takes viewers spiraling down a rabbit hole of both dazzling, kaleidescopes of color and extreme absences of everything but clear glass. In his imaginative and meticulous-yet-chaotically colorful series Calle, Ohira presents vibrant works that open, like Venetian canals, into another world of psychedelic, super saturated, color. Fleeting moments of narrow, sunlight-ridden streets amble into loose-yet-intentional patterns and layers. But then, he eliminates everything. All color is stripped from other works save for the painted red lip of a vase's top. It's as if we've made an accidental but lucky turn down a side alley to see something so abruptly different. Even with the extremely minimalist glassworks, one can clearly see Ohira's artistic range and dynamism within the pockets and layers he has created in the vessels. With or without color, Ohira's works kinetically dance to "music without sound."

Venice: 3 Visions in Glass is not lacking in pieces to see. In fact, the amount of glasswork was slightly overwhelming. Because the Nelson does not yet have a permanent glass collection, it is understandable that the museum would want to take advantage of the opportunity to show as much work as possible. Still, a higher level of selectivity could have tied the artists together more effectively. Although most of Santillana's works are shown with Bianchin's, Yoichi Ohira's pieces are cornered in cases out of the central exhibit (I found myself doing an excessive amount of walking back and forth between Santillana and Ohira). Integrating the three artists would enable viewers to develop stronger exhibition narratives and fully appreciate the simultaneous diversity and mutual experiences of the artists and their work.

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