Art Review

Review: Art Forged in Fire at Michael Warren Contemporary

Etsuko Ichikawa’s “Jomon Vitrified Figurine,” flanked by a pair of pyrographs.
Etsuko Ichikawa’s “Jomon Vitrified Figurine,” flanked by a pair of pyrographs. Courtesy of Michael Warren Contemporary
Michael Warren Contemporary is currently hosting a pair of shows:The Water Within: Works by Etsuko Ichikawa occupies the front spaces, while Peter Olson: Photo Ceramica fills the smallish back gallery to capacity. Both feature art forged in fire.

Seattle-based Etsuko Ichikawa is best known for her glass works, and the show includes several types. There are the cast-glass pieces based on neolithic Japanese ceramics, including the striking “Jomon Vitrified Figurine,” a miniature standing figure in uranium glass that has an internal glow, at least when lighted directly. The glass spheres from her “Orb” series look like paperweights, though they wouldn’t work as such (shaped like balls, they’d simply roll away). The “Orb” pieces have complex color relationships, with hidden color that’s only visible when the pieces are completely lit; conveniently, the gallery provides a flashlight you can use to direct light to the centers of the “Orb” sculptures. Another series, this one mostly comprising clear glass blocks, is “Vitrified Cubes." Here Ichikawa's use of strings and swirls of uranium glass allows these squiggles to glow electric green when illuminated.

click to enlarge
Installation view of Etsuko Ichikawa’s “Vitrified Cubes.”
Courtesy of Michael Warren Contemporary.
Another Ichikawa signature is the pyrograph, for which she burns paper with a glass-blowing pipe right out of the furnace, creating a whiplash burn. The group of pyrographs at Michael Warren have an unusual feature: They’ve been embellished with watercolors, a relatively new aspect of these “drawings” that had previously been mostly limited to scorch brown against white paper. Gallery co-director Mike McClung has a special regard for Ichikawa's work, particularly her pyrographs; her burned drawings partly inspired his own pyrographic pieces, even if they look nothing like hers.

click to enlarge
Installation view of ceramic vessels in Peter Olson: Photo Ceramica.
Courtesy of Michael Warren Contemporary
Peter Olson: Photo Ceramica also involves fires and firing, but in this case the art is made from clay, of course. Professional photographer and ceramicist Peter Olson creates traditional vessels that he then covers in ornament. At first the forms — lidded pots and wall-chargers — look like examples of traditional European pottery, an impression enhanced by the reddish/brownish color of the iron oxide glaze against the cream-colored grounds. But on closer inspection, the decorative motifs come right off the streets, which makes the work seem totally contemporary. Using photo transfers, Olson adorns the pieces with a diverse cast of people, using their hats or other signifiers of who they are as disembodied decorative motifs arranged in patterns.

More than any other contemporary gallery in Denver, Michael Warren champions pieces done in mediums that are ordinarily associated with craft but have been used to create fine art. Ichikawa’s glass and Olson’s ceramics certainly qualify.

Both shows run through December 1 at Michael Warren Contemporary, 760 Santa Fe Drive. Call 303-635-6255 or go to for more information.
KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Michael Paglia is an art historian and writer whose columns have appeared in Westword since 1995; his essays on the visual arts have also been published in national periodicals including Art News, Architecture, Art Ltd., Modernism, Art & Auction and Sculpture Magazine. He taught art history at the University of Colorado Denver.
Contact: Michael Paglia