Start with sand. Add soda ash and limestone, and put it in a kiln at 1,700 degrees. Add metallic salts for staining. It melts into glass. Blow it, fuse it, slump it, or cast it. Shape it into a water glass, a windowpane, a snow globe, a marble, a bauble. Or art.
“Vitreous Bodies: Assembled Visions in Glass,” at Massachusetts College of Art and Design’s Bakalar & Paine Galleries, surveys how contemporary multimedia artists deploy glass in their work, and how glass artists push the boundaries of craft into art — porous boundaries indeed, these days. Glass that speaks to the concerns of contemporary art is hardly a new trend; it has seeds in the American Studio Glass movement of the 1960s.
Glass beguiles us for two reasons: its mischievous play with light, and its dualistic magic of reflection and transparency. Like anything intoxicating, its quixotic beauty can be pushed too far. (See: Dale Chihuly’s “Lime Green Icicle Tower,” at the Museum of Fine Arts, the sculptural equivalent of a circus act.) Artists working with glass must weigh how to wield its power.
Daniel Clayman hits the right note with “Rainfield,” a site-specific installation that opened last month in MassArt’s new Design and Media Center, and was the inspiration for “Vitreous Bodies.” Clayman and his crew of 18 students hand-formed 10,000 glass drops in the school’s hot shop. They built and attached wire harnesses, and suspended the drops from a 60-by-50-foot truss attached to the ceiling of the building’s atrium.
“Rainfield” takes the welcoming shape of a broad Roman arch — you wouldn’t know whether to shelter beneath it or pull out an umbrella. The drops quietly glimmer and wink. They make the open space of the Design and Media Center’s atrium seem even more open. The installation’s intricacy counterbalances its ambitious scale; the result is like a crystal canopy of starlight.
For “Vitreous Bodies,” Lisa Tung, the galleries’ director, has assembled works by 13 artists who also avoid the cheap visual thrill, and use glass’s particular sorcery in a variety of ways.
One or two eschew its beauty altogether, and not always to good effect. Kanik Chung’s “Presidents” is made up of ink drawings of Washington through Obama on glass plates that stand upright in a tight sandwich; together, they become a blur that looks no more presidential than any inkblot. Nor does the glass make a difference. Chung could have created the same effect drawing on Plexiglas.
Michael Joo also uses clear glass, but he takes poetic advantage of its fragility and transparency. His “Dissembled,” an installation of police shields made with glass, shrewdly inverts the shield’s protective power.
The most eloquent works in “Vitreous Bodies” do what Joo has done: parlay glass’s properties into metaphor. Maya Lin’s site-specific installation “The Flow of the Charles,” made of 25,625 marbles, sparkles and bubbles like water over walls, ceiling, and floor as it maps out Boston Harbor, the Charles and Mystic rivers, and their tributaries.
Lin is best known as the designer of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, in Washington, D.C.; her art and architecture often delve into our engagement with nature.
What you may not know is that her father, Henry Lin, was active in the American Studio Glass movement. He brought home marbles, and they captivated his daughter. She plays with them again with this magnificent installation, which looks like a creature with tentacles slithering around the gallery, lyrically evoking the organic life of the waterways.
Many of Dafna Kaffeman’s pieces are overtly political; newspaper headlines often inspire the Israeli artist. She has been making glass wolves since 2001, when, disheartened by political events, she set out to make a black cloud to reflect her mood. The cloud evolved into a wolf.
“Wolf 01” and “Defeated (Wolf 02)” are not tied to particular headlines. Rather, they represent a social id, a group’s darkest impulses — fear, insecurity, anger, violence. A formidable specter all too present lately.
Kaffeman makes these wall sculptures by pulling liquid glass into sharp points over a hot flame. They’re spiky all over, as if the wolves’ fur is rising like porcupine quills. But the artist only delineates the animals’ outer contours, turning them into bristling, glossy black shadows. They look like danger.
My favorite piece is, in some ways, the simplest: Arlene Shechet’s Zen-like “Out of the Blue.” Shechet, familiar as a ceramic artist, long ago crossed the murky craft/art divide into fine art. For this piece, she cast blue-pigmented crystal into molds made from thick, sometimes knotted, strands of rope. She mounts the loops, knots, and hanks on the wall each at a distance from the next; it looks like a leviathan’s sewing project.
“Out of the Blue” defies expectation about a wall’s surface — rarely do we think of its other side. It renders a delicate activity on a large scale, yet still it’s intimate and quiet. Heavy ropes have mighty durability, yet the blue crystal reads like ephemeral ice or sea fog.
No Chihuly-like swagger here. For Shechet, and many of the artists in “Vitreous Bodies,” the medium gracefully serves the message.
At Design and Media Center, Massachusetts College of Art and Design, 621 Huntington Ave., through December. 617-879-7000, www.massart.edu/rainfield
VITREOUS BODIES: ASSEMBLED VISIONS IN GLASS
At Bakalar & Paine Galleries, Massachusetts College of Art and Design, 621 Huntington Ave., through March 4. 617-879-7337, www.massart.edu/galleries