Double Translucency: Contemporary Glass Exhibitions at the Knoxville Museum of Art

The Knoxville Museum of Art (KMA)’s multi-faceted mission in many ways exemplifies the diverse roles museums play in their communities: KMA “celebrates the art and artists of East Tennessee, presents new art and new ideas, educates and serves a diverse community, and enhances Knoxville’s quality of life.” These elements come together in the museum’s current burst of activity around the medium of glass. Using the unveiling of a permanent installation by local artist Richard Jolley, entitled Cycle of Life: Within the Power of Dreams and the Wonder of Infinity, as a catalyst for a major campaign, KMA is pursuing the development of a glass collection, presenting an exciting exhibition, Facets of Modern and Contemporary Glass, and preparing the museum to “receive the world” as it looks forward.

orig filename: _V3N1103.jpgFacets of Modern and Contemporary Glass opens one week before the Jolley unveiling, and exposes audiences to various glass techniques as well an international group of artists that have pioneered the glass art medium and influenced Jolley. The bulk of the show looks at a cross-section of contemporary artists and seeks to break down barriers between contemporary artists that use glass in their works versus pure glass artists. The shows hopes to showcase glass as a versatile medium that encompasses a range of techniques and styles.

The usual suspects in the glass medium, such as Dale Chihuly, are absent from this show, which instead spotlights artists, such as Fred Wilson and Rashid Johnson, who are more known for their works in other mediums. Wilson's piece, a large black mirror, Emilia's Mirror - Act 5, Scene 2, refers back to the history of Venice and his participation in the Venice Biennale, where he worked with Venice glassblowers. During his study in Venice, Wilson noticed people of African ancestry seen in many Venetian works, but not identified. His use of black glass also refers to the story of Othello, which is based in Venice and illustrates the fusion of African identity with European traditions.

Another artist, Andrew Erdos, also uses monochrome glass, but adapts a more playful approach to the medium. His piece, Smokey Sapphire, Endless Mountains, which also incorporates the use of LED lighting and wood, presents a mirrored world of cartoon animals in a box walking around in a sea of sapphire and mirrored glass that appears to go on infinitely. Erdos began the work around the time the museum contacted him for the exhibition and adjusted the title and subject matter to coincide with show.

While an exhibit in its own right, Facets of Modern and Contemporary Glass also serves as an introduction for the unveiling of Richard Jolley's Cycle of Life: Within the Power of Dreams and the Wonder of Infinity, set to open May 4.. Jolley's monumental glass sculpture, which was commissioned especially for the museum by long-time KMA supporters Ann and Steve Bailey, will be on display in the museum's newly refurbished Great Hall. The Great Hall, which features towering windows and walls that seem endless, is an ideal setting for Jolley's work, which extends for some 100 feet, soars to a height of 12 feet, and weighs seven tons, making it one of the largest figurative glass and steel assemblages in the world. Before this commission, there had been no art in the Great Hall, as it was thought to be a public space not safe for displaying art, and the museum’s efforts to bring Jolley’s work to the public reflect the larger-than-life nature of the installation. Jolley completed the commission, which includes several suspended elements, with the help of studio assistants and assembled this grand sculpture into seven parts. The installation is composed of thousands of individual cast and blown-glass elements; the massive work details as an epic narrative of the successive phases of life. The first six stages take place on Earth and extend around the Great Hall's second floor wall, while the seventh stage, suggestive of the cosmos, is dramatically suspended from the ceiling. The installation also coincides with the 25th anniversary of KMA, linking the creative process of a local artist to the growth process of an institution that puts local artists at the heart of its mission.

Wilson,_Emilia_s_Mirror_hi_resIn conversation, KMA curator Steven Wicks highlighted the incredible scale of the installation. The work’s first part, "Emergence", made of cast black glass, takes the form of a large-scale man and woman walking together, reminiscent of Adam and Eve. "Flight" illustrates 130 black glass birds that appear to fly off into the distance. The third cycle, "Desire" features another man and woman figure, also cast in black glass, symbolizing the act of procreation. "Tree of Life" features steel branches to which black and white doves, glistening leaves, and pomegranate blossoms, are attached. The trunk of this tree is the only element in the sculpture that extends down to the museum floor. For the section, "Contemplation", a massive head is partially recessed, yet allows for the passage of light to represent transition and a state of quiet introspection. The sculpture's climax, "Sky", suspended from ceiling of the Great Hall, is comprised of an orb made of little bits of steel, fusing a geometric spider web of little bits of colored glass, curving strands of metal, with blue clear orbs, meant to represent the sky. Much like the sky itself, the sculpture's colors change depending on the time of day, creating an ever-changing visual experience for museum visitors. The installation is an arresting visual experience and provides a clear illustration of the complexity and power of glass works that are revealed both in Facets of Modern and Contemporary Glass and in the museum’s aims to establish its glass collection.

While born in Wichita, Kansas, Jolley made Tennessee his home as a youth, when he moved to Oak Ridge, Tennessee. In 1970, he began his art training at Tusculum College in Greenville, Tennessee, and in 2002, the Knoxville Museum of Art first presented its major retrospective of Jolley’s work, which later traveled to 14 museums over five years in the United States. These longstanding links to Tennessee make the installation’s catalytic role for the museum particularly significant. With Jolley's installation and the exhibition, the museum expects a large turnout comprised of collectors, dealers and curators that have all expressed interest both in the exhibitions themselves and in the hopes of adding to the museum's glass collection. This rich relationship between museum, artist, and community, in which each element both contributes and benefits, highlights the relevance of KMA’s multi-faceted mission.

Facets of Modern and Contemporary Glass opens April 24- July 27, 2014.

Cycle of Life: Within the Power of Dreams and the Wonder of Infinity is set to open May 4, 2014.