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A Glass Show Full of Ideas
By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer Friday, January 13, 2006; Page WE48

It may not look like it, but there's a battle going on inside the Chevy Chase Pavilion, the upscale mall in Northwest Washington that's home to a Pottery Barn and a Cheesecake Factory. You see, that's where the Glass Gallery moved last year from its digs in Bethesda.

Now marking a quarter-century in a tough business with its "25th Anniversary Celebration" -- a reunion of sorts featuring many of the artists who have shown there over the years -- dealer Sally Hansen's sedate gallery isn't the kind of place where you'd expect to find conflict, let alone controversy. And, to be sure, the tension there is less than seething. Still, the struggle is palpable, if you know what to look for.

"Axel," by Phil Crooks and Pam Beers, in the Glass Gallery's "25th Anniversary Celebration." (By Phil Crooks And Pam Beers)  

After all, it's right there in the front window.

On the left are two works by Sonja Blomdahl: "Tangerine/Ruby Vessel" and "Coral/Straw Vessel." As the names suggest, they're glass containers in prettily coordinating colors. On the right is another vessel, Ron Desmett's "Lidded Trunk Vessel #7," its matte black finish and lumpy silhouette -- it almost looks like it's melting, but it only barely looks like glass -- a stark contrast to the gleaming, classical perfection of its neighbors. The former are firmly rooted in tradition; the latter, despite a cursory nod to the vessel form it shares with Blomdahl's work, is not.

Elsewhere in the 27-object show are signs of the same schism. Take Kathleen Mulcahy's "Cold Mountain," a richly colored vessel that resembles a pointy-bottomed amphora, but without the handles, lying on its side. Compare it with Brent Kee Young's "Amphora . . . Save" from the artist's "Matrix" series. Oh, there's an amphora shape in there, all right, but it looks as though it was "drawn" with squiggles of glass squeezed out of a pastry bag. It is an idea of an amphora, surrounded by air quotes.

Gail Gorlitzz's sculptural work of carved wood and strung beads feels similarly disconnected from some of its surroundings. For one thing, it has more wood in it than glass, a holdover from the artist's onetime preferred medium. Called "Remains of the Fey," it feels as if it's physically pulling away from the whimsy that still taints a lot of glass art. Sidney Hutter's two contributions to the show, both of which reference the vase form without actually being vases, are equally bold statements.

Several other artists also reject the trope of the glass vessel, with varying degrees of success. For Susan Stinsmuellen, the collaborative duo of Phil Crooks and Pam Beers, and Judith Conway, glass is merely another flat canvas on which to make a picture. With the exception of Conway, whose works are more windows than paintings, none of the others takes particular advantage of glass's unique properties of transparency and quasi-liquid texture. They might as well be working with wood.

Other artists here certainly work with glass as pure sculpture -- notably Christine Barney and Meza Rijsdijk -- but they seem stuck in a dated sort of mid-20th-century abstraction. Kevin O'Toole's untitled bowl, which hangs from a hook by means of a hole (rendering it nonfunctional) is more successful. It is both vessel and anti-vessel, consummate craft and commentary on craft in a single object.

Is there really a war going on in the glass world between form and content; between decoration and serious sculpture; between glass that is happy to be a vessel to transport water in and glass that aspires to carry something like an idea? Maybe not. Perhaps it's only a loud argument between friends.

As the Glass Gallery's "25 Anniversary Celebration" demonstrates, neither side is ready to declare absolute victory, much less admit defeat.

25th ANNIVERSARY CELEBRATION Through Feb. 4 at the Glass Gallery, 5335 Wisconsin Ave. NW, Level 2 (Metro: Friendship Heights). 202-237-1119. Open Monday-Friday 10 to 8; Saturdays 10 to 6. Free.     © 2006 The Washington Post Company

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