Time is running out to see Traver Gallery’s latest extravaganza: “Engaging with Glass: A Survey of Contemporary Irish Glass Art.” The show of work by almost 40 different Irish artists working in glass runs through May 27. Originally shown at the Solstice Arts Center in Meath, Ireland, the show features the work of Irish artists working at home or abroad as well as foreign artists living and working in Ireland.
On first glance it is difficult to find anything distinctly Irish about the show. The limited range of glass working technique and the global traffic of digitized images means that artists everywhere are speaking an international language of design and image that makes national boundaries somewhat irrelevant. One can well imagine that a similar show would result by picking artists from any geographically defined region (provided that said region is rich enough to produce artists that have access to the infrastructure for making glass).
Exceptions prove the rule. The two most overtly Irish (maybe self-consciously so) artists are Eimear O’Conner who makes potatoes – the Irish blessing and the Irish curse – out of pure, clear crystal and Eoin Breadon who is like the Irish Preston Singletary. Breadon harvests designs and forms from the Celtic past and casts them in glass. “Sanctuary,” for example, is a majestic stag’s head graced with Celtic knots. In the blue antlers is a drum with the emblem of a wild boar. The animal spirits of the pagan Celts are alive and well in Breadon’s work.
As noted, there is no obvious Irish content in the work of artists like Sarah McEvoy, who creates square and rectangular panels of matte finished glass. Bands of creamy color cover portions of the surface. McEvoy’s concerns are entirely abstract. She explores notions such as similarity, proximity and continuity. Paula Stokes’ “Belly Bottles” are plump and jolly tear drops of pure color that could have been produced anywhere in the world. Stokes, who is affiliated with the Museum of Glass, was instrumental in bringing the show to Tacoma. Catherine Keenan’s vivid, colorful “Eye Candy” vessels – consisting of stacks of organic orbs marked with banded polka dots – are hard to forget. They draw the eye and then make themselves at home in the viewer’s storehouse of sweet memories.
While there is little in the show that shouts, “This is Irish art,” a closer inspection reveals a number of themes that are Irish (though not necessarily uniquely so). Many artists of the Emerald Isle, for example, are inspired by nature and by the sea that surrounds them. Pia Raeymaekers, for instance, creates dense, polished glass forms that are reminiscent of sea creatures. “Phase 1” is based on the formation of a sea anemone but its size and shape also call to mind the nose and mouth of a shark. Alva Gallagher’s banded green glass forms (fused, slumped and hand polished) are inspired by the waves of the sea. Michael Ray’s visually delicious and delightful “Diatoms” are dish-like vessels of amorphous form covered in colorful dots similar to those of Keenan’s “Eye Candy” vessels. Other nature-themed works are Eva Kelly’s “Chestnut Seed Case,” which is a gem, and Eva Walsh’s “Luminous Shadow.” The latter is a series of moose antlers made of uranium glass that casts an otherworldly, green glow.
Other artists in the show are working in a centuries-old continuum of metallurgy and craftsmanship inherited from the Irish past. Karl Harrow combines glass and fine silver to create big, thick bowls whose etched and crackled surfaces have an elemental essence. Roisin de Buitlear’s huge, acorn-shaped glass orb, “Tambour” (from the Limerick lace series), is covered in a delicate yet intricate lace design.
Since their green isle is the repository of artifacts produced by millennia of Celtic civilization, another major concern of Irish artists is memory. Peadar Lamb’s painted; stained glass “Cre na Cille (Soil of the Grave) #2” seems to reference artifacts in an ancient tomb. Alison Lowry’s “Jack Fell Down” is a set of teeth and a cream colored, glass dome that resembles a skull fragment unearthed from an archeological dig. Keith Seybert creates crystal skulls that are set on pillows made of wrinkled sheets of lead. Charlene MacFarland’s combination of blown glass elements combined with old car parts and Louise Rice’s retro vanity case filled with blown glass tear drops carry a nostalgia for objects prized by a previous, but not too far removed, generation. Aoife Soden, on the other hand, conveys a longing for one’s own childhood with “Lost Treasures.” A Pez candy dispenser cast in crystal is set in a special tin box. A glass panel opposite the precious toy is etched with two lines of script that are repeated over and over again: “We moved often and my collection of treasures was lost. We moved often and my collection of treasures was left behind.” It is both funny and sad.
Another facet of Irish civilization encountered in the show is the Irish love of the written word and story telling. Donna Coogan, for example, often includes original written text or poetry in her glasswork. Eamonn Hartley’s “Alphabet Envelope” is a thick and magnificent crystal vessel with the letters of the alphabet engraved as elegantly as Arabic calligraphy. Peter Young’s painted stained glass panels, meanwhile, come across as scenes from folk tales.
Finally, an enjoyment of urban culture – city life – with all of its offerings is reflected in such works as Greg Sullivan’s “Living London.” This cut crystal, lyre-shaped vase is engraved with a lively street scene set in jolly old England in the art nouveau era. Deirdre Feeney constructs wonderfully detailed, miniature buildings out of glass and then projects videos into them. “Waiting for Rewind” shows people walking randomly through the interior space. The effect is both striking and disorienting. Suzannah Vaughn’s constructions also have an architectural feel to them. Geometrically sculpted concrete “buildings” have channels that are filled with a solid core of cast glass. A peek into this “window” yields a peculiar optical effect.
“Engaging with Glass” has much to offer. Do not wander through the gallery while talking to your banker, as some poor benighted souls are wont to do. Instead go and savor the colors, textures and visual flavors that the artists of the fabled Emerald Isle have brought to our town.
“Engaging with Glass” runs through May 27. For further information visit www.travergallery.com or call 253.383.3685.