Pittsburgh Glass Center exhibits new wares that reinterpret antiquities
“Out of the Archives and Into the Gallery,” a new exhibit on display in the Pittsburgh Glass Center's Hodge Gallery, proves that a lot can be learned by looking back when forging ahead to create something new.
For this exhibit, 17 Pittsburgh-area glass artists were invited to go behind the scenes at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History to find an ancient piece of glass, thousands of years old in some cases, that would inspire them to create new work.
Pittsburgh Glass Center's executive director Heather McElwee says the goal was not only to research and re-create a piece of ancient glass, but to “use it as a springboard to create a modern interpretation, or inspiration for something entirely new.”
“They got to hold precious objects that are typically kept behind glass cases,” McElwee says. “It was such a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and you can tell that each artist appreciated that by the way they interacted with the pieces.” From there, they had to attempt to re-create the piece as closely as possible.
McElwee points to an Islamic glass vessel created by Margaret Spacapan titled “Giving, III,” as an excellent example of re-creation.
“Looking at this piece compared to the photograph on the wall of the original vessel that inspired it, it's hard to tell the difference,” she says. “This is all enameled, just the way the Islamic artists used to do it in the 12th century.”
The piece has several identifying characteristics of Islamic glass in the delicate enamel detail, which includes geometric and vegetal imagery. Works like the Islamic beaker were highly prized at the time. However, production of this type of enamel glass was not limited to royalty, as evidenced by the vast number of pieces dating to the period that have been found.
Spacapan says that, unlike so many other enamel and gilt glass pieces, this piece does not exhibit a narrative through its imagery. “Its decorative nature pushes the object from its function as a canvas for history and storytelling to the function of an ornamental vessel,” she says.
Flanking the photograph of the original piece are “Giving, I” and “Giving, II,” two glass tile pieces inspired by the intricate designs on the original vessel.
“My reinterpretation of this piece focuses on the pattern alone,” Spacapan says. “I stripped away the third dimension and alienated the surface work from the strictly functional object — a way of divorcing the work from an intended function to view it in a purely aesthetic way. I find beauty when something can be separated from the reason it was made, its existential purpose, and still have impact as an object.”
For Jason Forck, picking one object from the museum's extensive collection proved to be difficult. After much deliberation, he narrowed his focus on two objects — a Roman bowl from the fourth century and another, much smaller, bowl of Persian origin believed to be from the fifth or sixth century.
As for the Roman bowl, he says, “I was most attracted to this piece because of the subtle transparency of the purplish brown color. What was most likely a production item of this era proved to be difficult to replicate. I made 12 bowls before feeling comfortable with both the shape and color match for this item.”
The second object he chose, the Persian bowl, was far thicker and heavier. At one time, this was a green-tinted clear object, but after being buried for more than 1,000 years, many layers of opaque weathering built up and ate into and adhered to the glass. Now it resembles something more closely associated with stone than glass.
“The draw of this piece was a near-spherical shape with the repeated hemispheres carved into the surface of the glass,” Forck says. “The simplicity of the form and repeated design also serve as inspiration for my reinterpreted piece in the show.”
His newly inspired take, “Diaphanous Fade,” features 90 bowls of similar shape to the Persian bowl, but in different color variations inspired by the Roman bowl.
Lisa Demagall also chose an example of glass from the age of the Roman Empire. In this case, a cage cup, circa A.D. 250-350.
Cage cups are extremely rare, as they were incredibly difficult to make, and very few have survived the test of time. To create one, glassblowers would create a very thick-walled vessel that, once cooled, would then be given to an engraver who would carve the cage-like exterior. Needless to say, this work would take hundreds of hours and limitless patience.
Demagall has effortlessly captured the essence and beauty found in the original source object with her re-creation. In addition, her newly inspired piece, “Homing,” which features a lamp-worked bird under a glass cloche bell jar, also speaks to the fragility of the inspirational source.
The object that Mike Mangiafico chose to re-create is a Roman mosaic glass “portrait bead.” Found in Syria and dated from the first to second centuries, it is a round bead made of opaque blue glass with three portraits of Roman ladies surrounded by a red and white pattern.
Mangiafico says his intention was not to make a spitting image, but rather to “re-create how the bead was made.”
“I explored various methodologies and tried to figure out how to re-create the look, feel and intent of the Roman mosaic glass portrait bead,” Mangiafico says.
Creating the design of the bead was one thing, but making it look centuries old proved to be another challenge.
“Reproducing (objects) handsomely worn by time has an allure all its own,” Mangiafico says. “I used modern antiquing techniques in some of my interpretations of the bead. I either added flux to the flame, or etched the glass cold.
“However I age my work, it speaks to the cleverness of our ancestors working with the technologies they had available,” Mangiafico says. “Re-creating this mosaic glass face bead has allowed me to think outside my usual perspective and reinterpret how I make glass beads.”
The remaining re-creations, and their newly inspired offspring, are just as compelling. They make for one of the most interesting and engaging exhibits to be displayed at the glass center.
Kurt Shaw is the art critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at email@example.com.