|Clearly Brilliant: Pilchuck's New Talent Program|
By Matthew Kangas
With the Pilchuck Glass School celebrating its 30th anniversary in 2001, it is worth taking a moment to think about how the school's influence has extended far beyond glass and far beyond its Stanwood, Washington campus. A new Tacoma Art Museum exhibition, "Clearly Brilliant: A Decade at Pilchuck Glass School's Emerging Artists in Residence," (to Jan. 1, 2001), strongly affirms how Pilchuck welcomes not only younger, emerging artists but also encourages those who have an interest in glass and might not have had the chance to work with it. Thanks to the 34 artists who responded out of the 54 contacted, TAM's curator, Greg Bell, has been able to assemble a sparkling survey of contemporary art that mostly uses glass as a partner or element in sculptures, assemblages, paintings, photographs and constructions.
"Clearly Brilliant" underscores the crucial new role Pilchuck Glass School plays in American art: evangelizing the as-yet-unconverted into trying out the most exciting art material of our time, glass. Begun in 1990 as the result of an idea by co-founder Dale Chihuly, and initially implemented by director Alice Rooney and others, the Emerging Artists
in Residence program (EAiR) began by inviting artists already associated with Pilchuck. Deborah Dohne and Amy Hamblin were there the first year, along with conceptual artists Jill Reynolds, Louisiana-based artists Roberta Eichenberg and Stephen Paul Day, and Swedish glass artists Ana-Mari Edstrom. A decade later (as the exhibition demonstrates), artists from all over the world have participated.
Chihuly's hunch proved prophetic for, if anything, the EAiR underscored and facilitated a general trend in contemporary art toward the implementation of glass as art element rather than its exclusive focus for decorative crafts.
EAiR echoes Pilchuck's already existing artist-in-residence program that has invited such well-known artists as Lynda Benglis, Willie Cole, John Torreano, Dennis Oppenheim and Italo Scanga to have works executed in glass according to their design whims.
By concentrating on younger, unknown artists of promise, Pilchuck wisely plants seeds for the future, a day that, in a way, has already arrived within the past decade when glass became fully accepted as one of a variety of art materials attracting artists today.
Viewers will be startled and delighted by the range of works on view. The bright color associated with Pilchuck glass (because of its Venetian heritage) is there but it is accompanied by a cool, clear color sense ratcheting up the intellectual caliber of the show, and reminding us that much of the appeal of glass to younger artists lies in its transparency. Icy, frosty, crystalline, colored or blurry, the 66 works on view by 34 artists make references to human anatomy, technology, botany, calligraphy, medicine, genetics, adolescence, childhood, femininity, masculinity, and consumerism. With such a full plate, curator Bell was able to differentiate his survey from TAM's benchmark 1991 exhibit, "Glass: Material in the Service of Meaning," guest-curated by artist Ginny Ruffner. "'Clearly Brilliant' is about emerging artists for one thing," Bell noted, "but, like Ginny's show, not everyone in "Clearly Brilliant" is known for working in glass.I tried to create a show that would look good in our space."
By combining wood, bronze, photography, X-rays, steel, paper, twine, concrete, salt, and even air-conditioning equipment with glass, the EAiR artists push the envelope of glass rather violently at times. It all adds up to a fascinating look at not only how Pilchuck Glass School has changed its outlook, but how glass in general has changed American art.
Given a $1,000 stipend, a room, and access to studios for two months each fall, the six artists selected respond individually both to the artistic opportunities and to the often "dark, isolated and cold environment," as '97 alumna Karin Richardson put it. She added, however, "artistically, it was invaluable to me. The facilities were good but, more importantly, I could be alone with my work."
Alison Chism feels that "it was a validation just to be selected and given time to work. I do wish the hot shop were available at the time to us. William Morris rents it out to do his work each fall but the program would be immeasurably enriched if it were possible to blow glass, too."
Several alumni, including Laura DiMeo, echoed that sentiment. Artistic Director Pike Powers admits that she wants to arrange things so that the emerging artists have greater hot shop access. She also wants them to meet prominent area art critics, curators, glass artists, and dealers. Each year's crop gets its own group show in a different local art gallery but often the artists are so professionally inexperienced that they approach the dealers with suspicion rather than trust and expertise.
According to Powers, the annual budget is $9,000. "They do some of the most progressive work imaginable and tend to exemplify a much more thinking population of artists," Powers added. "You can see that in their diversity of ideas. And for the most part, they're highly self-motivated." Having come from as far away as Great Britain, Sweden, Iceland, Germany, Norway and Japan, the residents contribute significant international viewpoints to the school. American artists drawn from California, Louisiana, New York, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and elsewhere join them.
It's too soon to tell which of the 54 former residents may become "big names" nor is that the gauge of the program's success. Several have managed to exhibit their work in galleries afterwards and a few, like Carl Hasse, Karin Richardson and Lisa Zerkowitz, joined the venue that also displayed their EAiR showcase, in this case, the Bryan Ohno Gallery. Other artists who found gallery affiliation as a result of the program include: Masami Koda and Kait Rhoads at the William Traver Gallery; Patricia Davidson and Patrick Martin at the Friesen Gallery.
Either way, the program is becoming one of the most desirable artistic residencies available in North America. What the next decade will bring is hard to say but, given the TAM survey and Pilchuck's sterling record for encouraging new talent, it is sure to remain the fount of some of the most promising and exciting art being made in our region.
MATTHEW KANGAS, independent art critic and curator, is a frequent contributor to Art Guide Northwest, as well as to Art in America, Sculpture, GLASS and The Seattle Times. His latest book is Ryoji Koie (University of Washington Press). Copyright © 2000 by Matthew Kangas
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