Philadelphia Art Alliance Blog

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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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