Saturday, November 14, 2009

Janis, Marquart and Baker at the MPA

The three artists included in this exhibition, curated by Nancy Sausser and which just closed last Saturday at the McLean Center for the Arts in McLean, Virginia, Michael Janis, Allegra Marquart and Tom Baker, are all, according to the curator, storytellers. She is not only right, but I would add that they are superb storytellers who employ the visual arts in their own distinct ways to narrate their stories.

Both Janis and Marquart are commonly associated with the revolutionary artists of the Washington Glass School. It is people like them, along with artists like Tim Tate and Erwin Timmers, who have been redefining the way that we think, interpret and discuss glass in the modern dialogue of contemporary art.

For the revolutionary minds of the 20th and now 21st century, glass in the context of the postmodern art world has nearly always been defined as craft, rather than art. This absurd designation, in my opinion, has been levied upon this entire substrate because of the spectacular success of a couple of "crafty" glass artists such as the gigantic figure of Dale Chihuly.

A few years ago a former Hirshhorn Museum curator told me that the "Hirshhorn does not collect glass." Replace the word glass with any other art medium and you see how nearsighted that statement was.

And the "craft" brand has also stuck because the successful names of the craft world drifted apart over the years, and also over the years built a formidable collectors' base developed at fairs such as the Smithsonian, SOFA, etc. These fairs generally predated the now common "high art" art fairs such as Art Basel Miami Beach, Pulse, Scope, Red Dot, etc.

The "craft" world was doing hugely successful art fairs many years before it became more common for the "high art" world (and yes, I know that Art Basel in Basel itself has also been going on for decades).

And thus, for years glass artists and other "crafty" artists were happy with their vessels and bowls and organic marine forms that commanded good prices from a very specific (and limited) set of collectors.

And then a few years ago, centered around the Greater Washington, DC region, a new glass movement began to emerge. This group of artists saw glass as just another substrate to create artwork, all kinds of artwork, not just bowls and vessels and pretty organic forms.

They used those materials to develop narrative stories, as Janis and Marquart do in this show. And they married glass to technology, as Tim Tate does with his self contained video installations. And they had glass emerge as a powerful new form of "green art," as Erwin Timmers does with his recycled materials glass sculptures.

Michael Janis. Death from the Tarot Card series. Cast glass, steel, glass powder imagery. 18 x 36 x 2 icnhesIn this MPA exhibition, Janis shows us what he contributes to that incendiary new group of narrative galss artists, if we can even call them just "glass artists" any longer. In this show he exhibits seven pieces from his Tarot Card series. These wall hung glass panels, elegantly bordered in metal, each depict a card from the ancient fortune telling card system. Using the traditional process of sgrafitto, Janis essentially draws on glass with glass dust and then fuses it all to deliver what can best be described as a glass drawing. They are simply rendered in a minimalist style on sheets of translucent glass that forges a brilliant aura of ethereal context to his subjects.

Marquart is an enviable technician and astute artist who searches the world of fairy tales to discover and present in a new visual way a subject matter that often resides in our childhood memories. In this show she exhibited both kiln formed glass and relief printmaking to deliver the tales. It was a superb partnership of genres. These are sculptural stories.

Tom Baker had eleven intimate and exquisite silkscreen relief prints which unfortunately were a little overpowered by the larger works of Marquart and Janis, and yet, probably because of their intimate size, still managed to attract those of us who like to get nose-close to a work of art to explore it deeply and precisely. His dizzying visual dialogue includes pyramids, electric mixers, ballistic missiles, etc. all waiting for close inspection and interrogation to deliver the narration component of this artists works.

And the same narrative thread that joins all three artists' works into a cohesive exhibition, is the glue that joins the viewer to the conversation in the viewing of the show.

Here's a quick, minute-long video walk through the exhibition.