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Contemporary glass shines at OMCA

By Josephine Bloomfield
On November 14, 2012


A small, abstract object sits quietly behind a glass case in the exhibit "Playing with Fire: Artists of the California Studio Glass Movement," a new exhibition at the Oakland Museum of California (OMCA).

The glass object's base modestly reflects opaque hues of blue, green, yellow and red, and after reading its title, you realize the glass sculpture does indeed look reminiscent of an owl.

Robert Fritz, the artist of "Warrior (Owl)" (1970), is one of the earliest students of Harvey Littleton, known as the father of studio glass, and Fritz's work reflects the rudimentary genesis of the art.

It's been 50 years since the studio glass movement began in the United States, and the OMCA is celebrating this golden anniversary by showing the evolution of glass art in California through displays of glass sculptures dating from 1964 through 2012.

The exhibit describes glass blowing as a technique developed during the Roman Empire that involves melting glass in a large furnace where temperatures reach 2000o F. The artist then manipulates the molten glass using a long tube called a blowpipe.

In a process of adding colored powder glass called frit to the molten liquid-reheating, blowing small air bubbles into molten glass-and reheating again, the artist works to create the desired designs and form.

Other artists practice flamework, a technique which utilizes a gas torch to melt rods of glass to make glass marbles, beads, figurines, and paperweights. But as the exhibit describes, artists also use this technique to create intricate lace-like glass sculptures similar to those displayed in "Playing with Fire."

As modernity faces its past, one can plainly see how the older art works have inspired new creations.

Around the corner from Fritz's works stands a mixed-media sculpture titled "Living on Fault Lines and Pacific Currents" (2005), which showcases a dilapidated glass house made from layers of transparent glass sticks, seated atop a thin steel rod high above a steel tricycle frame.

 The sculpture, created by Mary White, an established artist who was once a student of Robert Fritz, manages to perfectly capture the delicate ambiguity of living on active fault lines.

Many of the artists in the exhibit manage to use glass to express their interests, concerns and observations in their own cultural and historical contexts. Furthermore, it seems as time progressed, artists became more adventurous not only in the architecture of their work, but in how they manipulate glass to convey their philosophies.

Studio glass artists over time have evolved in how they choose to express their love for the ocean, fear of globalization, frustrations surrounding femininity and masculinity, and in recreating profound moments in their lives.

Behind White's glass house rests Oben Abright's "Projections in Tun Yee," (2010), a 3-D portrait of a monk whom Abright met at a refugee camp in Burma. A video montage of the military violence against protesting monks projects on the back of the figure's head.

"My intent in projecting this imagery in the portrait of Tun Yee is to describe my experience meeting him in a conflict zone" writes Abright. "... It promotes a platform for expressions of unrest while conveying an internal narrative and the convolution of memory."

The Oakland Museum of California's "Playing with Fire" exhibition beautifully illustrates the evolution in technique of the glass movement, but surprisingly also shows how the artists' self-expressions have evolved using glass as a medium.

From the figurines of the 1960's, to wall displays used as vessels to illuminate the anxiety surrounding the disbursement of culture through globalization, you are sure to sit down at least once to admire representations of our own backyard.

"Playing with Fire: Artists of the California Studio Glass Movement": Through March 24, 2013. Oakland Museum of California, 1000 Oak Street, Oakland. $9 for students with valid ID.

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