Contemporary Artists Breathe New Life Into Centuries-Old Venetian Glassmaking Techniques

Making its U.S. premier, Glasstress Boca Raton 2021 is a progressive new exhibit at the Boca Raton Museum of Art featuring works of glass from over 30 of the world’s foremost artists. For many of these artists, Glasstress represents their first time working in this challenging medium. The exhibit explores timely subjects including human rights, climate change, racial justice, gender issues and politics. Glasstress Boca Raton 2021 is the highly-anticipated sequel to the museum’s 2017 Glasstress exhibit. A collective of international artists were invited by Adriano Berengo to work alongside his master glassmaking artisans at his eponymous Berengo Studio on the island of Murano in the Venetian lagoon.

“In these times of tragic news, it helps to be reminded of the absurd and the surreal, to be able to play, in life and in art, to hold on to a lightness when the world feels heavy,” Berengo stated. It was a challenging year to plan an international exhibition, but the effort is a tribute to the resilience of Venice, surviving the floods in 2019 and the pandemic of 2020 — a reassurance that art is an essential and enduring part of humanity.

Kathleen Goncharov, Senior Curator at the Boca Raton Museum of Art, visited Berengo Studios numerous times over the years and is familiar with many of the participating artists from the Venice Biennale, which creates a strong connection between that event and Glasstress. “These guys (at Berengo Studio) are maestros; they come from generations of glass workers,” she remarked. Most of the works have never been seen elsewhere and were handpicked by Goncharov who traveled to Italy during pre-Covid days of 2019.

Glasstress artists collaborated with the glass artisans at Berengo Studio, each learning something new in the process. American artist and co-founder of the Washington Glass School and Studio in Washington, DC, Tim Tate created Pandemic Oculus for the exhibit. “During Covid-19 I have been steadily making work every day. I have also been programming a lot of the Zoom meetings for museums and collector groups, and in some ways I’m more connected to the art world that ever. This new Covid world has changed the way we interact, and it’s not going anywhere for some time.”

“The Pandemic Oculus,” 2020. Tim Tate.

Tate experienced many feelings of déjà vu during the lockdown, which ignited new ideas and artistry. “There has been huge anxiety during this time. This is my second pandemic, as I have lived through the AIDS crisis…losing 14 friends, eight in one year. Unexpectedly, as Covid became a real threat, I suffered difficult PTSD symptoms from the prior pandemic. Each loss reminding me of former losses. When I face emotionally difficult times, I make work. The very act of creation has healing energy. That act has help me survive both.”

The lockdown period revealed pre-dawn inspiration too, Tate noted. “There have been a few quiet times to reflect, as I lived in a country torn apart both politically and morally. My only solace was every night, after I woke up at 4am as old men do, I refused to let myself go back to sleep. In that half sleep/half aware moment, my brain allows access to that part which cradles creativity. That is when all of my new work comes to me.”

Pandemic Oculus celebrates the helpers of Covid, Tate said. “It speaks of those unknown people around the globe who have maintained our world, even as it ground to a halt. The emergency room nurses who hold the hands of the dying because their loved ones could not be admitted, the teachers, the essential employees, the grandmothers caring for their grandkids so their parents could work. Within them lies the soul of humanity.”

Tate found a glimmer of hope in the remembrance of so many losses during the AIDS and the Covid-19 pandemics. “Strange that the mind will forget so much of what only this moment has passed, and yet hold clear and bright the memory of what happened years ago…of men and women long since dead. Yet who can say what is real and what is not? Can I believe my friends are gone when their voices are still whispering into my ears? No, for they remain a living truth within my mind,” he disclosed.

“Strikes Twice,” 2020. Jimmie Durham.

Originally from Houston, sculptor, essayist and poet Jimmie Durham has lived and worked in Europe since 1994. The early days of the pandemic resulted in a whirlwind of production, he recalled. “During the first months I was happy to take time to write, and produced a book of poems that was published by Hansjörh Meyer and Wien Verlag in Berlin. I worked every day in my studio in Napoli, and enjoyed the garden, but by September I began to feel that I needed more company, more sociality; private and public must always be needed I guess.”

That connection to humanity arrived when Durham traveled to Berengo Studio. His Strike Twice depicts a group of eight glass cougar heads sculpted by the artist after being hand-blown by the studio’s glass artisans. “I was pleased to work with a glass master. One is not in complete control; one never is, but we like to pretend we are. After the initial piece was made, I could then use my chisels and hammer as though working with stone,” Durham explained. “I very much like that two-step way of working. Only the future can look back and see how we reflect our times.”

Working in this medium was both challenging and exciting for Durham, he discovered. “Glass is the strangest material, so it must be natural for art. For a thousand years, painters have not had to grind and mix their own pigments or make brushes, so the idea of complications in preparation have become kind of lost. Glass must be softened with heat before it is used, so it seems to be much trouble, maybe…”

Durham’s enigmatic take on working in glass is summed up this way, “My idea of glass is that it is interesting when it is broken because the brokenness vibrates and is a little dangerous always. So it’s not only pretty, usually when glass is broken it’s prettier, but at the same time you ought to stand back a little bit—you don’t want to be bothered by it and then it wants to announce itself to you absolutely.”

“Blossom Chandelier,” 2017. Ai Wei Wei.

The first Glasstress was a collateral event at the Venice Biennale in 2009, soon thereafter becoming an independent international exhibition. Glasstress Boca Raton 2021 is the first edition of the exhibit after the global pandemic and the first Glasstress of the new decade. Organized during a year in which the earth stood still, it provides a welcome look at the diversity of artists who continue to turn this ancient medium into the art of the future. The exhibit runs at the Boca Raton Museum of Art through September 5, 2021.

Photography by Francesco Allegretto.

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