Ron Desmett
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Essays

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
“Truth/Beauty: Kathleen Mulcahy and Ron Desmett”
Pittsburgh Glass Center

Once unassailable, the terms “Truth” and “Beauty,” have now long been suspect. Whose truth? Whose beauty? The artists Ron Desmett and Kathleen Mulcahy make no attempt to fulfill dated expectations in this two-person exhibition. Rather, they take on the challenge of using glass sculpture to subvert traditional assumptions about the medium and its appeal to the beautiful and truthful.

Long-time figures in the Pittsburgh art scene, the artists are co-founders of the Glass Center, an innovative facility devoted to the production and exhibition of glass art. Each has a very different approach to the material. Mulcahy’s work is sensual. Forms are rounded, swollen, and curved. Desmett is more conceptual, borrowing from existing sources—both natural and man-made. A comparison of some of their vessels and two-dimensional pieces, all produced in 2006, foregrounds these distinctions.

In her Persuasion Series, Mulcahy starts with a recognizable container—an ornate perfume decanter—and dramatically increases its scale. The seductive blown glass bottle in Languorous, for example, is now thirty-five inches tall. The intense cobalt blue of the vessel’s body is deep and mesmerizing. The ornamental flourish on the stopper begs to be caressed and lifted. The work’s title is etched in fanciful script across the base making plain the promise of dreamy sensuality under the spell of the bottle’s contents.

By contrast, Desmett’s containers, entitled Lidded Trunk Vessels, are surely some of the strangest ever fashioned of glass. Large, lumpen forms are etched to a dense, matt chocolate-black finish and topped with an equally odd-looking lid that resembles the think stem of a giant squash. Their nature-derived and decidedly crude profiles are at complete odds with Mulcahy’s refined sensuality. A hollowed-out tree trunk is employed as the mold for the blown glass while a smaller trunk is used for the lid. The process is improbable and risky but, when successful, results in a vessel that is at once terribly homely and utterly captivating.

Each artist also presents a second group of work that is more two-dimensional. For Mulcahy, these take the form of layered, wall-mounted pieces made of flame-worked glass shapes over slumped and etched plate glass attached to a fabricated steel sheet. West Branch of the Susquehanna is a tour-de-force of the artist’s technical skills. Clear glass drops of irregular lengths are hung over the vertical glass and steel surfaces. The pendulous drops are luscious to behold, recalling the sensual experience of a summer rain.

Desmett brings his sensibility as a painter to his wall pieces. Shallow, square-framed boxes have appropriated images that are etched on the glass surface or the support below. In Cat’s Cradle, for example, a dated image of a man wearing a suit is glimpsed through an all-over honeycomb pattern along with a diagram of hands playing the children’s string game. A bright-red heart floats in the upper left pointing to the work’s content of the stereotype of controlled masculinity at odds with feelings of emotional manipulation.

Masculine stereotypes continue to be explored in Desmett’s major work, A Book: Portrait of the Artist as a Middle Aged Man. Spread open on a steel stand, the large-format “book” with glass pages is etched with appropriated images and text. Again the imagery is drawn from the artist’s childhood and common vocabulary—tools, men in suits, a tractor, organs—coupled with text that on the left reads in reverse “see through glass darkly.” We’re given a skeptical assessment of the images of manhood presented in children’s schoolbooks and the artist’s desire to question that authority.

That attitude of questioning assumptions about received meaning, or expectations for glass sculpture, is what links the seemingly contradictory work presented here. It’s refreshing to see Mulcahy and Desmett taking us beyond the clichÈ of a decorative approach to glass to new forms that are technically brilliant, conceptually dense, and visually seductive.

Kristina Olson

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