People often talk about art when they're actually referring to something else. We hear about the art of the deal, the art of medicine. There's the art of cooking. And the art of politics. Even the art of baseball. Aren't comedians and rock stars called artists?

In fact, it seems that nearly every human endeavor is seen in terms of art--except, that is, for the crafts: glass-making, ceramics, weaving, metalwork or jewelry. Pity the visual artist working in one of these fields, because, unlike the cook, the politician or the ballplayer, he needs to continually remind the viewer that the product of his labors constitutes a work of art.

The art world has long distinguished "art" from "craft" to the disadvantage of the latter. According to this view, "art" is seen to occupy a lofty cultural realm, whereas "craft" has a more down-to-earth connotation--the pure visual appeal of paintings, for example, versus the utilitarian role of bottles. This prejudice is even sometimes codified in art curricula and some museums as a distinction between the "fine arts" and the "minor arts." Little wonder, then, that many artists working in craft media self-consciously struggle to settle the argument in their own favor.

That's surely the goal of most of the artists in Glass: A Fusion of Art and Craft, an excellent show at the Arvada Center that even refers to the raging debate in its title.

The show was organized by assistant curators Susan Sagara and Rudi Cerri, and they did a good job of selecting examples by more than a dozen artists working with glass. All but one of the artists are active in Colorado, and between them they map out a broad territory that ranges from expected vessels to more unexpected sculptures.

Many of the participants address issues of art from the perspective of craft, using functional objects to achieve a union of technique and aesthetics. Lauri Thal has blown handsome trumpet-shaped compotes that recall the modern glass of 1950s Scandinavia. The simple hydrostatic forms are set off by the muted colors of the glass. Less successful are Thal's wavy, plate-glass sculptures, which likewise make reference to the medium's liquid quality; they're covered in sandblasted decorations, the work of Melissa Malm.

More elaborate technically, but still mostly functional, are the works of Brian Maytum, Susan Di Marchi and Chuck Lopez. Maytum displays a vase, a bottle and a sculptural paperweight. The bright interior colors can be glimpsed through facets cut in the clear-cased glass surfaces. Di Marchi goes a few steps further, with vases and perfume bottles that have been elaborately etched and sandblasted in geometric patterns, some of them featuring hot applied elements as decorations. Di Marchi's sense of color is superb; in one large vase that has a neoclassical feel, a creamy lavender is perfectly paired with a rich shade of teal. Lopez presents three rectilinear vases that have been mold-blown, producing deep surface ridges in a diagonal pattern both inside and out. On the exterior, the effect resembles the treads of a tire; the vases' interiors, though, are mostly white, giving Lopez's pieces a source of inner light.

Among the most interesting works are those that keep one foot in the functional legacy of glass and the other in the world of sculpture. James Clarke's perfume bottles of glass and stone differ little in concept or effect from his closely related sculptures, which he executes with the same materials. Joan Reep also blurs the distinctions between bowls and sculptures with big, blobby sea forms of swirling, earth-toned glass that incorporate metal wire and bronze. Reep makes her intentions clear: These "bowls" aren't to be used at the table.

The most ambitious of the hybrid works are the pieces by two of the region's best-known glassblowers, Kit Karbler and Michael David. Karbler and David have collaborated since the 1980 founding of their studio and workshop, Blake Street Glass, a genuine cultural treasure that has since emerged as a center for local glass-making. The duo's perfectly blown bowls, many with elaborate bases, have had their sides cut away, denying their utilitarian role. The bowls can't hold anything--other than the viewer's interest.

The standout of Karbler and David's pieces is "Mesa Llena de Color," a sculpture that looks like a decorated coffee table. Various examples of their characteristic cutaway bowls are affixed to either the plate-glass top or the legs. One witty element has a form that at first looks like a table leg; on closer inspection, one sees that the component never connects to the floor. Karbler and David have assembled so many different examples of their work in "Mesa Llena de Color" that the piece could be seen as a (not too) portable gallery.

Another group of artists presents glass that is purely sculptural and refers not at all to the functional arena. Heidi Stein's "Untitled" and "Industrial Growth" look fragile and dangerous at the same time, combining faceted glass in deep jewel tones with found mechanical elements. The juxtaposition of rusted cogs, gears and nuts with gleaming glass spikes provides just the right visual rhythm.

It's nature, and not industry, that provides J.B. Barrett and Eric Haddick with their very compatible inspirations. Both artists, whose work is among the strongest in a very strong show, principally use white or clear glass blown into phallic shapes that also suggest plants and other organic forms.

Barrett's "Nuts Again" is a totemic, blown-glass figure surmounted by what looks like a star-spangled condom--just below which are a pair of mold-blown acorns. The same kind of adults-only theme is seen in Barrett's three marvelous "Rayguns."

Haddick's pair of "Roman Trees" are more quietly organic. Two three-legged tables made of braided iron rods are each surmounted by a complicated blown-glass construction that represents a conventionalized tree. As objects, they're reminiscent of floor lamps, a form that Haddick addresses elsewhere in the show with notably less success.

Entirely different from all of the other glass sculptures are Carole Sharpe's busts that correspond to the four seasons. These pieces have been assembled using found materials--most often broken, industrially produced glass bowls and light fixtures, as well as shards of mass-produced porcelain. Those materials are then held together by an elaborate network of bronze caming. The busts vary greatly in color and detail, but they're unified by their similar forms and by the use of the same mold-blown glass face in each.

The show's artists, whose work fills several galleries at the Arvada Center, may seem to have resolved the conflict between art and craft once and for all. But similar efforts have been made by glass artists for centuries, and the pedants still won't budge. Is glass an art form, or is it a kind of craft? As this dazzling exhibit demonstrates, those questions may best be answered with yet another one: Who cares?


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