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Seeing through “Transparencies”


Jim Dingilian’s Smoke Inside Empty Glass Bottle from Collection Hamilton Corporate Finance.

Jim Dingilian’s Smoke Inside Empty Glass Bottle from Collection Hamilton Corporate Finance.

In science, the word transparency refers to the physical property that allows light to pass through matter. Its political and social definitions have become far more muddied and ambiguous. The Des Moines Art Center’s (DMAC) dazzling new exhibition “Transparencies – Contemporary Art and the History of Glass” reflects upon both definitions while consistently suggesting there is more going on than meets the eye.

Ten artists from the U.S., Iran, Great Britain, Japan and the Czech Republic bring installations to the museum that frivolously flirt with the eye and then surprise us with their depth and complexity. Laura Fritz, a Drake graduate, hides her crystalline constructions in giant jewelry cases. To see their interaction with light, visitors must bend over like voyeurs peaking through keyholes. Ran Hwang builds chandeliers out of thousands pf crystal pin heads. Then she animates them with spiders and waterfalls erupting through videography and mirrors. Judith Schaechter creates brilliant Tiffany-style stained glass windows and populates them with freakish characters.

Fred Wilson uses glass more politically. His installations “Beginning of the End” and “Drips and Drops” both reference negative racial implications of ink, oil and particularly tar. Suspended on the wall, they appear proud and lovely. Not so much when splattered on the floor. Wilson‘s “Iago’s Mirror” recalls a line that Shakespeare gave to his namesake villain regarding his obsession with his black hero Othello: “Were I the Moor, I would not be Iago: In following him, I follow but myself.” Subject and medium converge as Wilson constructs a black mirror by layering four levels of dark-red glass in a Baroque-style befitting the Venice of Othello’s day.

Two bottle artists demonstrate the political qualities of transparency. Matt Eskuche shares three pieces from his larger series, “Trash Glass.” These bottles, plus an occasional can, goblet and candlestick, are flame worked and powder coated to look like glazed pottery or porcelain. Yet they are stressed and damaged to resemble the leftovers from a redneck weekend of drinking and not giving a damn about the consequences of littering.

Exhibition curator Laura Burkhalter compared his work to the still life Dutch Vanitas paintings of the 17th century. “The old masters depicted decadent tabletop arrangements of food and drink in excess, meant to suggest the ephemeral nature of worldly pleasure… Often included were glass and crystal objects to show off the artist’s skill at portraying transparency and reflection.”

Jim Dingilian catches smoke in a bottle. Then he paints its insides by sculpting away at walls of soot. The bottles themselves are discarded consumer items, and his subjects are as mundane as suburbia. It’s Dingilian’s perspective that provokes reflection. Like the works of the Australian artist Patricia Picinini, featured at a previous DMAC exhibition, we glimpse from just beyond the edges of the outback at backyard swimming pools, garages, parked recreational vehicles and couches left for trash. That point of view suggests what poet Archibald Macleish called “the little green leaves in the wood” and its redemptive grace. Sadly, these remnants of the primeval forest look endangered by the recklessness of suburban aesthetics. The paintings themselves seem threatened by their delicate media and their dependence upon the bottles remaining sealed.

Rachel Lee Hovnanian’s mirrors also conjure the spirit of Vanitas. They employ motion-sensor lights to seduce anyone who might somehow pass a mirror without gazing at his image. As we look upon our images, we see ourselves through dead Narcissus flowers and vials of Botox, a beauty product suggestively derived from poison. “Transparencies” plays through May 22. CV

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