“Queen City Glass Arts . . . Renaissance,” 5th Street Gallery 

Work by seven members of Queen City Glass Art is currently on view at the 5th Street Gallery, a co-op gallery in the Netherland at the corner of Fifth and Race. The organization is a nonprofit dedicated to educating and uplifting the community through hot glass arts. They work at the hot shop, glassblowing studio, at Brazee Street Studios.

The show brought back memories from the early ’80s when I was curator of the gallery of the New York Experimental Glass Workshop, a nonprofit, artist-run, public access glassworking facility (Now UrbanGlass), and editor of its quarterly, New Work (now GlassQuarterly).

That was followed by a nearly decade-long stint with Dale Chihuly when I marketed and administered his traveling exhibitions in the U. S. and Europe. I was also curating glass exhibitions in Cincinnati and elsewhere.

It was a period when I could rattle off in my sleep the history of the 1962 birth of the Studio Glass Movement1. So I approached the Fifth Street Gallery show with that background.

Glassblowing really is a special medium. To the unitiated, it can appear magical, but it follows rules of physics and behaves in predictable ways. I’ve also learned that nearly all beginning glass artists and artisans also behave in predictable ways as they experiment and play with the technically challenging material. They need to get certain things out of their system as they work to perfect their skills.

Work by beginners, including the pioneers of the Studio Glass Movement, all looks pretty much the same: awkward. They make blobby sculptures as they allow the molten glass to drip off the blowpipe and weave it one way and another to keep it from dripping to the floor. As they struggle to master vessel making, they produce thick-walled vases and bowls. And, as with any medium, once they attain some level of proficiency, it takes more time to develop a distinct and hopefully unique aesthetic identity.

What I found looking at the work by the artists of Queen City Glass Art is that despite their sometimes decades-long involvement with glass, very few have reached that stage.

Two have and are producing quite satisfying decorative objects. One is Rachel Russo who studied glass at Ohio State University. Her brief bio states that she had taken a hiatus from glass, but has rediscovered her love of the medium and is focusing on form, color, and composition. The results are commendable.

Some might call Russo’s work unambitious as she is making unashamedly decorative objects. I prefer the word unpretentious. Her well-crafted vessels are refined. She keeps the scale modest, and she’s done nothing tricky with their surface decoration, just transparent veils of color that blend into each other, somewhat like the Seattle-artist Sonja Blomdahl’s splendid spherical vases.

Rachel Russo, untitled, blown glass, 12” tall. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Most of Russo’s offerings are simple elongated vases with tiny openings, but my favorite piece might be seen as a torso with a broad chest tapering to a waist. The top is aqua, and it shades to green on the bottom. If I wanted to go all art-critic-y, I would make some comment about how a vessel is a symbol of “the feminine,” although here it seems more masculine. The truth is this is a humble, potentially functional vase with a clean Scandinavian feel. Here it’s on a pedestal but it would fit quite comfortably (it’s only 12” high) on a bookshelf in an upscale Ikea interior.

I also like the lack of pretension in Merritt Johnson’s vessels. They are well-designed and well-executed. Her simplest ones are small monochromatic ovoids. She graduated from the Art Academy in 2012 and began working with glass at River City Works. In her short artist’s statement, she says that she “enjoys the process of creating an object out of a material that has such a meticulous process,” and her work shows she has developed the skill necessary to create visually satisfying work.

One artist stands out because of his intriguing sculpture, Ticker Tape Machine. John Ruzsa uses glass only incidentally here. I used to distinguish between “glass artists” and “artists who use glass” by saying, the former focus on the craft, and the latter are more cerebral. It was the hand versus the brain. Here Ruzsa fits into that latter category.

In Ticker Tape Machine, a milky glass bell jar houses two flickering candle-shaped bulbs and a couple with glowing coils that recall Edison’s first light bulbs. It’s supported by a three-legged, black metal stand that could have been a little less crudely welded, but still the sculpture was engaging.

I hope it’s a direction that Ruzsa will pursue since his other work was far less interesting. He presented small, mostly clear-glass vessels (it seems odd that after a 30-year-career as a stained glass artist, he eschews color) with hot-glass additions: zigzaggy-fins, dollops, and spiraling trails (strands) of glass. They are inspired by Etruscan glass, which also inspired Venetian, more correctly Muranese2, Art Deco period designers and later Dale Chihuly’s “Venetians” series begun in the 1980s. Ruzsa’s efforts look like student work because of the scale and lack of finesse even though he began blowing glass in the late ’80s.

Tom Kereiakes has been blowing glass for six years, “captivated by the color and optics of glass.” He “got hooked on the ‘in the moment’ artistry of blowing and shaping molten glass.” I’ve heard similar comments by more artists than I can count.

Kereiakes, an ENT surgeon, has developed a personal style with his slender vases with slightly flaring openings. With opaque white interiors, they are encased in a single color. The surface is crackled, recalling Muranese “ice glass”3 where a bubble of hot glass is plunged into water, which breaks the surface like ice cracking. Kereiakes has reheated the bubble longer than his Muranese predecessors, thus smoothing the broken surface more and rendering it less treacherous to touch.

Kereiakes also showed a couple of vases using a surface decoration technique called “feathering.” Here a metal tool is dragged through a series of semi-molten trails of glass spiraling around the hot glass bubble. It’s an ancient technique but you would recognize it in Tiffany vases where it can look like iridescent peacock feathers. Kereiakes has limited himself to two colors, and here lack of ambition is not a plus.

Tom Robinson is still producing student-level work although he started glassblowing in the late 1990s at the River City Works. His vessels are thick-walled, and he uses a surface decoration technique that Chihuly made his own in his “Macchia” series although it has ancient precedents. The process involves rolling a hot bubble or gob of glass over broken bits of glass, called frit. The effect is a bit like an ice cream cone covered with sprinkles or what are called “jimmies” in Rhode Island where Chihuly developed this technique. (The name “Macchia,” an Italian word meaning “spots,” came from the glass artist’s close friend, the Italian-American artist Italo Scanga. It replaced the working title of the “uglies” that Chihuly’s mother, Viola, had dubbed the series.) Many Chihuly wannabe’s use this technique but, never in my experience, with his spectacular color sense.

Robinson also attempts another signature Chihuly touch: spinning out the vessel form in the final moments so that centrifugal force opens it up and the glass responds to gravity, creating wavy and lyrical vessels. Robinson’s is too small, too thick, too static.

The Queen City Glass Art group includes Debby Hoffeimer, who opened the first nonprofit glass studio in Cincinnati in 1988, the Golden Glass Studio and School. Given her pedigree, you could expect a reasonably skilled glassblower, but I fear you’d be disappointed.

Like Robinson, Hoffeimer’s debts to Chihuly are clear with her use of the jimmies. But her Green Surprise owes something to another early glass artist–Mark Peiser and his work from the 1970s, his remarkable Paperweight Vases. His pieces with representational garden scenes are nothing short of astonishing as he establishes a sense of actual depth. Using a technique borrowed from paperweight makers, he captured a design in glass. By laying out a scene composed of bits of glass and then rolling a hot bubble of glass over it to pick it up, he put it seemingly in the background when he gathered another layer of clear glass over it. Then he picked up what would appear in the foreground and covered that with another gather of clear glass. The results were technical tours-de-force.

Hoffeimer’s Green Surprise has a sense of depth, but she has not attempted anything beyond two layers of jimmies.

And why she would show the blobby sculpture, which encases a messy, somewhat Abstract Expressionist design? Every beginning glass student makes those mutant paperweights. And it’s a dead-ringer for a 1982 sculpture by Sam Herman, one of the first glass artists.

In 2010, I gave a lecture at the Marta Hewett Gallery to the Ohio River Glass Group about Studio Glass in Cincinnati and adapted it for publication in aeqai (http://www.aeqai.com/articles/112010.htm).

In researching the lecture, I talked to local gallerists and collectors who recommended artists I should speak with. Oliver Debikey is the only one in the Queen City Glass Art group included in that lecture.

Since then I’ve seen Debikey’s work in several exhibitions, notably at my yoga studio, Main Street Yoga in OTR. My response to his work has remained the same: amateurish.

Debikey’s website (debikeystudios.com) shows a number of series not included in this exhibition (fortunately none of the Chihuly “Macchia” knockoffs are here), but I think he’s selected a fair representation of his oeuvre with the thick-walled and sometimes ungainly vases he chose.

Among them are some sack-like forms with “handles” or “ears” pulled out on the left and right sides. Some reminded me of William Morris’s “Suspended Artifact” series where a similar form is pierced by an arrow or spear, which are held up on a metal stand. Morris’s pouch sags in response to gravity. Debikey’s sit and there is no sense of glass’s ability to move and respond to exterior forces.

Another of these forms has a bulbous body that might be seen as a baby bird because the vessel’s opening looks like a maw, waiting for the next worm.

Forms aside, Debikey’s use of color and surface decoration although likeable enough isn’t particularly noteworthy.

I have tried to see these characteristics not as flaws but as intentional and just can’t get there. For me his work remains at the level of a student who has begun to master basic techniques and needs more practice to hone his skills and develop his artistic personality.

Often glass artists want critics who are not familiar with the medium to write about their art. This is part of their quest to move glass out of the craft column into fine art. And these writers with no knowledge of the material, the myriad techniques available, and history are often seduced by the seemingly magical medium. I have no idea what another aeqai writer might have made of the show. I just know for me, I had a sense of déjà-vu, transported back to shelves of work by fledgling glassblowers struggling to master the material. Not what I would have expected from this bunch.

Karen S. Chambers

1. In 1962 two landmark workshops were held at the Toledo Museum of Art at the instigation of Harvey Littleton, son of the head of research at Corning Glass Works. His dream was to blow glass himself, to realize his aesthetic visions rather than directing a skilled gaffer, glassblower, to execute his designs. The challenge was to create a glass formula that could be melted in relatively small batches in contrast to the hundreds of pounds of glass melted in a factory setting. That would be supplied by Dominick Labino, director of research at Johns-Manville. Thus the Studio Glass Movement was born with Littleton and Labino sharing paternity. For a fuller understanding of how the Movement developed, I recommend Susanne K. Frantz’s Contemporary Glass: A World Survey from the Corning Museum of Art.)

2. In 1291 in Venice, glass houses were confined to the island of Murano to contain the inevitable fires, but also to restrict movement of skilled glassblowers. The Doges wanted to keep the techniques secret and monopolize the glass market by forbidding glassblowers to leave on pain of death.

3. Ice glass: A decorative effect that causes the surface of the glass to resemble cracked ice. This is achieved by repeatedly plunging a parison of hot glass into cold water and withdrawing it quickly. The thermal shock creates fissures in the surface, and these impart a frosted appearance after the parison (glass bubble) has been reheated to allow the forming process to continue. http://www.cmog.org/research/glass-dictionary/i

“Queen City Glass Arts . . . Renaissance,” on view through June 1, 2013, at 5th Street Gallery, 55 W. 5th St., Cincinnati, OH 45202. 513-579-9333, 5thstreetgallery.com. Through June 1. Mon.-Thurs., 10 a. m.-6 p. m., Fri., 10 a. m.-9 p. m. Sat., 10 a. m.-6 p. m.


One Response

  1. After reading this article, I find myself wondering what the review is actually about. I am astonished by the Karen’s uninsightful, and almost cruel comments about each artist. She lacks a depth that one might expect to find from such a seasoned art critic. The article reads more like a pathetic proclamation of self, than it does a review of gallery art. I am surprised that such an accomplished historian of glass art would stoop to such base and almost punitive levels of description. The works being described in this article are in essence beautiful, as they are handcrafted, jubilant expressions of the creator.

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