Philadelphia Art Alliance Blog

Glass: Monumental & Miniature


Jessica Jane Julius, Absorption Screen, 2016. Photo courtesy of the artist’s website.

Climbing the stairs of the Art Alliance, we move from the open spaces of the first floor galleries to the enclosed, windowless second floor. Once on the second floor landing, our gaze is drawn towards what appears to be a shimmering mirage. A pair of lights illuminate the far wall of Gallery C, and we might at first think that we are looking at some kind of projection on a screen. Appropriately entitled Absorption Screen, Jessica Jane Julius’s work pulls viewers in. Coming closer, the mirage becomes concrete and real, no virtual screen but rather myriad tiny glass reflective beads affixed to the wall. These beads are the material used for airport runways and roads, guiding planes to land safely and marking the lines within which cars must travel. Julius uses this medium in a way that gently subverts its more industrial applications, creating an abstract field of muted colors that absorb viewers’ attention as we move closer to see the minute details and step out again to grasp the whole. This installation is site specific and therefore transient: its lifespan is that of the exhibition.

Moving into Gallery D, we see Megan Biddle’s Force Field, a series of delicate glass spheres attached to a thicket of steel rods by small but strong magnets. Looking closely, we can see the glass spheres gently swaying, but miraculously they do not fall. Another series of drawings by Sharyn O’Mara hang directly across the gallery. O’Mara created these small-scale drawings while walking, their meticulously formed ink circles evoking the glass spheres in Biddle’s work.

Three monumental installations by Amber Cowan dominate Gallery E. Cowan takes pressed glass objects made in the early twentieth century and transforms them into otherwordly ensembles that distort their domestic shapes almost beyond recognition. In the center are three large glass bowls, all made from identical smokey gray pressed glass, in whose depths rich dark reds flicker with the shifting light. Looking to the far wall of the gallery, we see Cowan’s Milk Glass Installation 1, in which we can still see the original forms of the glass objects she transforms through flameworking and hot sculpting. It is as though these humble vases, pitchers and vessels are gently melting, the first part of a metamorphosis into the dense thicket of glass we see on the opposite wall in Cowan’s Gray 80. In contrast to the relative simplicity and legibility of the other works in this gallery, Gray 80 is a veritable horror vacui of glass forms that crowd the vertical space of the wall. Peering at the details, we might expect gnomes to pop out from under the stylized toadstools and thick leafy landscape of the piece.

Moving to the last gallery, Gallery F, Jessica Jane Julius’s large Static Puddle Series 01-04 draws the eye, calling attention to the liquid nature of glass. These puddles seem to hover away from the walls, giving them a lightness and transparency like that of clouds. Like the lifecycle of water as it moves through the ecosystem from liquid to vapor to clouds, Julius draws attention to the protean nature of glass. Next to them, Megan Biddle’s Convergence plays with the liquidity of glass by creating a rigidly geometric structure, two panels of clear glass with converging black lines, like a Renaissance exercise in perspective. Biddle has used a technique known as slumping to create this piece, a difficult technique in which glass is melted gently over a solid mold.


Megan Biddle, Drift and Drag, 2015-16.

As we leave this gallery, we pass by a series of digital prints by O’Mara and cyanotypes by Biddle. While the former technique is very modern, cyanotype is an early photographic technique similar to a blueprint, often used in the context of scientific studies. The cool blues of these works harmonize together and draw attention to the shifting shapes of the natural world.

As a whole, the works on view in HUSH explore the myriad facets of glass as a medium that allows us to reflect on the world around us, on both a literal and metaphorical level. The quiet monochromatic palette and technical intricacy of these pieces draw us in, asking us to focus on what is in front of us, rather than persisting in the state of perpetual distraction that is so common in our technologically saturated world. The ensemble of work also speaks to the relationship among the artists themselves, as they manage to explore these issues together even as each artist expresses her own creative vision.

HUSH is on view until April 24, 2016. The Art Alliance is open Tuesday through Sunday, noon to 6 pm.

Text by Flora Ward


Glass: Medium & Metaphor

HUSH is a collaborative venture that arose among four artists who currently teach at the Tyler School of Art at Temple University: Megan Biddle, Amber Cowan, Jessica Jane Julius and Sharyn O’Mara. Together, the works on view at the Art Alliance ask for quiet reflection in moments of stillness that are increasingly rare in our busy modern lives. Beginning in this blog post with the pieces on view on the first floor galleries A and B, the next post will take the reader upstairs. I draw connections of theme and technique in hopes that visitors to this exhibition will be inspired to see other relationships and resonances among these works.   

In HUSH, glass is both an artistic medium and an organizing metaphor. The work of all four artists is united by its technical difficulty, the resulting labor-intensive processes that quite literally push and stretch the limits of the medium. Glass has been fused, sintered, flame-worked, pressed and pulled, all of these varied techniques playing with the uniquely protean nature of glass that ranges between solid and liquid states. Even works not made of glass manage to convey some of the qualities of this medium, transforming it into an abstract concept as well as a material reality. The works on view at the Art Alliance explore a series of dichotomies inherent in glass itself: movement and stillness, transparency and opacity, liquid and solid.


Sharyn O’Mara, Untitled (Wall Drawing), 2016

Upon entering Gallery A on the first floor of the Art Alliance, our gaze is immediately drawn to the solid marble fireplace and the delicate glass pieces that extend from the wall like the very thinnest branches of a tree, spreading from the mantle almost all the way up to the ceiling. As they climb the wall, the glass projections diminish in size and fade in color from a pale gray into an eggshell white that gently fades into the wall of the gallery itself. As the viewer moves around the room, the shadows cast by the glass pieces move, too, transforming the wall into a shifting field of glass and shadow. Artist Sharyn O’Mara calls this piece Untitled (Wall Drawing) (2016), appropriate given the way the shadows mimic the improvisational movement of the artist’s hand, loosely sketching her subject. Behind the seeming casual improvisation of this piece lies hours and hours of meticulous work to create these glass pieces and affix them to the wall. O’Mara used powdered glass caked on a flat surface before firing, and when you look closely you can see that the individual pieces have one side that is slightly flattened as a result of this process.


Detail of O’Mara’s Untitled (Wall Drawing)


Within the same gallery is another series of works by O’Mara, eight small pieces of vellum painted with an ink wash and mixed media, eponymous with the exhibition as a whole: HUSH #1-#8 (2016). Roughly the size and shape of the pages of a book, the abstract marbling on these pages recalls that found in books, but also evokes the natural forms of geology with its layers and seams. O’Mara asks viewers to look through the transparent surface of the vellum, even as she frustrates our attempts to see through the surface with layers of ink.

A similar frustrated transparency is apparent in the other series of works in this gallery, the glass and steel ensemble by Megan Biddle entitled Further for Now (2012). Biddle has taken glass panels and broken them, filling the cracks with steel and layering the broken pieces atop one another until the glass becomes nearly opaque. With their sturdy steel frames, these pieces feel almost industrial, like relics of a now-defunct factory. 

Moving into the second and larger of the ground floor galleries, Gallery B, the space is dominated by another of Biddle’s pieces, four slabs of concrete, mica and glass entitled Lithosphere (2016). Despite their airy title, these pieces are overwhelmingly solid and heavy, like a broken poured concrete floor. Round pieces of glass relieve the heaviness of the concrete, resembling clear bubbles. But these bubbles are solid glass, calling our attention to the dual nature of glass as both a fragile and sturdy medium. A subtle coating of mica makes the surface of these concrete panels shimmer in the light, dissolving their solidity somewhat.


Megan Biddle, Lithosphere, 2016

The works on the wall surrounding Biddle’s massive Lithosphere all engage similar themes of solidity and fragility, transience and transparency. Sharyn O’Mara’s series of three large pieces of glass mounted in steel frames consists of ghost forms etched into the surface of the glass after the firing process, which burns away the organic matter leaving only traces. We stare at these massive works and only get a hint of the subjects that inspired them, reminding us of inevitable loss and disintegration. Amber Cowan’s elaborate flameworked glass Rosette in Milk and Ivory (2013) takes a now-discarded American industrial product, pressed glass, and transforms its domestic shapes into an otherworldly ensemble of organic forms. The meticulous detail draws the viewer in, and while it is possible to recognize some of the humble pitchers, plates and other kitchenware that Cowan has used, they have been rendered unfamiliar through a laborious process of gently pushing and prodding the glass with a flame until it transforms into something rich and strange. Jessica Jane Julius uses letter forms from different typefaces to create abstract compositions that draw attention to the constructed nature of language. Finally, Sharyn O’Mara’s Untitled (cut drawing) (2015) uses semi-transparent wax paper to create a drawing in negative space, similar to her wall drawings in the previous gallery. This lace-like sheet of white paper mounted on a white ground plays with negative and positive space, and the viewer struggles to discern whether the composition appears in the solid wax paper or the pieces that have been cut out of it.

Together, the pieces on view at the Art Alliance draw viewers into a quiet world of reflection, which is no less demanding for its quiet hush. The four artists have truly integrated their work throughout the exhibition across both floors of the Art Alliance, and the themes, materials and techniques of the pieces on both floors resonate with one another. The next post in this series will look more closely at the works on view in the second floor galleries.

HUSH is on view until April 24, 2016. The Art Alliance is open Tuesday through Sunday, noon to 6 pm.

Text by Flora Ward