Privacy and surveillance, colonialism, environmental perils, police brutality — these aren’t themes commonly associated with glass art. “Glasstress,” by its very name, however, suggests this isn’t your tía’s collection of swans and clowns.
“Since the inception of “Glasstress” in 2009, Adriano Berengo, who operates a renowned glass workshop and the Berengo Foundation in Murano, Italy, has challenged curators, collectors and artists to shatter outmoded, limited notions of glass’ creative potential. His strategy follows that of celebrated Venice-based collector, Peggy Guggenheim decades earlier: Invite artists celebrated for painting, bronze sculpture and other mediums to collaborate with master glass artisans – “maestros” – to realize their visions in glass.“Glassstress” urges artists to “stress” the medium to attain previously unimagined results. Berengo’s maestros also extend their skills as artists propose, “Let’s try this!” Their joint achievements are exhibited worldwide, including, repeatedly, in the Venice Biennale.”
AUDIO: Hear expert commentary on ‘Glasstress Boca Raton’
“The international tours [Berengo] has set up have really brought attention to what can be done in glass," said visiting scholar and curator Davira Taragin during a brief gallery tour.
Bringing the star power of “name” artists into the glass studio has united the glass world with contemporary painting and sculpture, creating a win-win. “We’re in a “post-disciplinary period,” she said. Intention, rather than material, is paramount.
Glassmaking has a centuries-long history in the Venetian lagoon, enduring vagaries of fire, fashion, war — and foreign knockoffs. Berengo is committed to keeping Murano’s heritage viable and forward-looking.
Whether ultimately kitschy, classical, utilitarian or visionary, all hot glasswork starts with melting batches of silica sand, soda ash and limestone in a 2,400 degree Fahrenheit furnace for blowing, casting into molds and other processes. Often, those basic elements are mixed with recycled glass and “secret” ingredients to create specific effects like color, sparkle and clarity.
For the current “Glassstress” exhibit at the Boca Raton Museum of Art, curator of exhibitions Kathleen Goncharov drew on her familiarity with Berengo’s inventory to create a distinctive, tech-savvy and provocative exhibition. She was determined to be independent. “It’s my show, not his,” she said, referring to her longtime friend, Berengo.
In choosing works for the show, Goncharov sought to reflect diversity both in the works and the artists who created them. The show incorporates works by 33 artists in examples both harsh and playful, ranging from a chandelier that surreptitiously incorporates surveillance cameras, an oversized unplayable drum and even a downloadable game.
From Brooklyn-based Fred Wilson she selected a frilly but subversively powerful black-reflecting mirror — a nod to the 2003 Venice Biennale, when Goncharov curated the U.S. pavilion featuring the complex, unsettled history of Africans through Wilson’s work.
Erwin Wurm, who often bewilders audiences with sculptural distortions and weird mash-ups, here squeezes viewers’ faces in a tall, slit-like mirror ornamented in stiff, Venetian frippery.
Like many contemporary artists, Spanish-born Javier Pérez is eclectic in approaching his preferred themes. To explore concepts of paradox, impermanence and cyclical flows, Pérez juxtaposes typical materials (stone and bronze) with the highly unusual (animal intestines and shoes). At Berengo’s behest, he added glass to his repertoire. Like life itself, glass is fragile, and Pérez makes that point viscerally with his florid, faux-antique chandelier shattered across the floor — its “bloody” remains picked over by stuffed crows.
Elaborate flame-worked trinkets have made Murano’s glass studios famous.
Petah Coyne’s jewel-like “Slippers” exemplify traditional glass-working skills, but their backstory references the dark and debilitating practice of foot binding and separates them definitively from tourist fare. While Coyne’s haunting work is often monumental, her contributions here are small, elegant, but still penetrating.
Kendell Geers grew up in apartheid-dominated South Africa, and much of his work — visceral sculptural forms, performance, video and graphics — is politically motivated. “Cardiac Arrest VIII” presents a 10-foot-tall heart, but its clichéd form is misleading. Consisting of 58 clear glass police batons, it silently screams.
British artist Luke Jerram regularly engages with social themes. His project “Play Me, I’m Yours” places pianos in public spaces worldwide, giving free access to professionals and homeless people. Another of his projects highlights ocean pollution. In the Boca show, delicate crystaline sculptures, blown and shaped by Berengo maestros, resemble fanciful floating pods but bear ominous titles: “Smallpox” “Untitled Future Mutation” and “HIV.” They’re based on deadly microscopic organisms. Goncharov explained, “I wanted to show something that looks like it could be on your coffee table, and then you look closer and you go, ‘Oh my god, maybe I don’t want that on my coffee table!’ ”
Michael Joo is another conceptual artist who thrived in the experimental Berengo laboratory. His tour de force mirrored glass stanchions are dead ringers for theatrical velvet ropes, reminding us of our infatuation with security.
Florida artist Carol Prusa was thrilled and frightened to participate. Invited by Goncharov, “I went [to Venice] knowing nothing about glass,” she said in a phone interview. “I had to just throw myself into the furnace. I had to pick up really quick how things are made and what was possible.”
Also, what was not possible.
Prusa is celebrated for intricate images derived from astrophysics and mathematics, painstakingly drawn in silverpoint onto large acrylic spheres. But her designs proved too complex to realize quickly in glass. Undeterred, she said, “I like working fast and thinking fast, and so did the maestro.” Their respectful tug of war resulted in her proposing a doughnut shape.
After initially saying “impossibile!” the maestro and his assistant successfully inflated this convoluted hot glass bulb, defying its tendency to collapse. Quickly rolling it onto pasta-like filaments and steel wool, they embellished its surface with the linear streaks and smoky stains of a cosmic maelstrom. Finally, they added two looping tulip flourishes.
"The shocking and gratifying thing for me,” added Prusa, “was that once we figured out the form, they could make one for me in an hour!"
Sculptor Thomas Schütte is known internationally for his politically charged, architecturally scaled figurative work. Taragin finds his oversize portrait head a standout. “It’s that angst; it’s the expressivity that he is so able to achieve, whatever the material.”
If you go
‘Glassstress Boca Raton,’ through July 2, at the Boca Raton Museum of Art, 501 Plaza Real (in Mizner Park), Boca Raton, 33432. 561-392-2500; bocamuseum.org.
Also at the museum: “Mediterranea” showcases late 19th- and early 20th-century works by American artists who strayed from the standard European Grand Tour. Upstairs, “Salvatore Meo” opens the Rome studio and found-object-based work of a prescient, under-appreciated American-born artist. Both through July 2.