TO PARAPHRASE THE old saw about laissez-faire government, sometimes it seems that the glass artist is best who uses glass least.
The Disparities III show at Philabaum Contemporary Art Glass gallery proves the point. Most of the time, Philabaum sticks with traditional pure-glass forms, but once a year shatters that self-imposed glass ceiling to mount a more adventurous mixed-media show. The seven glass artists in Disparities, invited from around the country, combine their primary material with a dizzying array of media: paint, copper, wood, fabric, photographs, metal chains.
Lonnie Feather of Portland, Oregon, gets this year's enthusiastic thumbs up for most painterly. Glass on its own holds gorgeous color, as the luminous rose-colored wineglasses and royal blue vases on display in a back room demonstrate. (They're from the gallery's production line of functional objects.) Feather gets her colors differently, almost the way a painter would. She first sandblasts the surface of plain old plate glass, creating concave drawings in the glass's smooth, colorless surface. These depressions then become a canvas for her acrylics and oil pastels.
A student at the famous Pilchuk School in Seattle back in the early '80s (she won the Corning Award for outstanding student in 1983), Feather nowadays works with the fragile material so subtly that at first glance it seems almost like an afterthought in her intricate constructions. Feather builds three-dimensional layered collages, the under surface usually being of canvas, the top of glass. She breaks the works out into the third dimension by holding the two surfaces apart with big screws or wooden clamps, and much of their beauty comes from the interplay between the layers and the uncharted open space between. Her inventiveness opens glass up to narrative possibilities.
In "Fit and Firm," the bottom layer -- the canvas -- is painted in bold geometric shapes, with stark white bands dividing a big trapezoid of vivid cherry red from a neighboring stripe in sea-green and planes of sandy pink. A small painting of a woman, pictured from the back, nestles in among these vaguely nautical hues. The glass layer, hovering a few inches over the canvas, completes the composition. The glass is greenish and sandblasted with restless lines; the lines continue in charcoal on a drawing that aligns with the geometries below. The theme is a bit off -- I detect no irony in the fit-and-firm woman pictured in her bathing suit -- but that doesn't keep this work from being a delicious mix of images.
In a series of smaller works Feather adds photographs to her already rich mix, using faded family snapshots to turn the collages into excavations into memory. An entire extended family, blurry as the past, poses proudly in a photo in "Family Quarrels"; sandblasted into the glass above them is a drawing of a hand opening up a jar, presumably a Pandora's Box of remembrance. Somebody's rusted old embroidery scissors -- Granny's? -- have been glued to the glass as well. "The Reality Is Always Worse" has a pair of beautifully drawn hands sandblasted into its top glass layer and colored in oil stick. A cut-out opens up to a pale gray-and-white photo of mountain grasses. A shiny copper bar underneath reverberates against the blues and reds of the hands, making this piece one of her most colorful.
Mary B. White of Berkeley gets plenty of color into her glass the old-fashioned way, by adding pigment while the glass is being created in the fires of the glory hole. She's showing nothing but glass houses here, nearly all of them in radiant hues (her fancy pedestals in different materials keep her in the multi-media category). Rendered in glowing pastel green, blue, pink and yellow, "Creative Fires: Dwelling on Domesticity Series #3" is an opaque glass house. It's set upon a tall floor pedestal made of tree branches whittled to a fine polish: they look like flames, and for good reason. They reach up toward the house's hearth, which glows with a incandescent light, created, prosaically, by a light bulb on the gallery ceiling.
"Creative Fires" slyly refers to female domestic spaces, with the traditional womanly task of keeping the hearth fires burning conflated with the glass artist's forays into the flames. Here the house metamorphoses into something alight with creativity.
White's houses are mostly the archetypal house drawn by children: single box with a pointy roof and cut-outs for windows and doors. White gives a nod to childhood culture in "Molly's Dog House," a monochromatic structure inhabited by zoo animals drawn on the roof in pen. In fact, her houses offer up a whimsical real-estate tour of the metaphorical possibilities of home and the extraordinary capabilities of glass. "First House," full of hope, is made of tiny glass bricks in rose-red. Its counterpoint, "Ice House" is a broken home, a circular house in frigid pieces of glass, set on a plate of shards. "House of Ancestors" is an arched affair with a mirrored floor, the better to reflect that we will all one day join our forebears. "Desert Dwelling," in opaque blue-white, is a meditation on our relation to our first home, the earth. Made of plain plate glass heated to such intensity that it's lost its transparency, the desert house has a wavy, organic look. Inside its fertile space grow fluted glass flowers shimmering in blue and pink.
Therese Lahaie of Emeryville, California, has been seduced by the way light moves through transparent glass. She's made an intriguing quartet of glass machines that move objects -- soft brushes, a roll of paper, white cloth -- against the glass and cast changing, mesmerizing shadows on the wall. Koichi Matsufuji uses cast glass like clay, fashioning astonishing realistic glass babies, attached to each other via metallic umbilical cords.
Milon Townsend of Hilton, N.Y., is a gifted master of the lampworking technique. The trouble is the way he deploys his gifts, a trouble that often besets conventional glass artists. He makes technically admirable human figures of glass, and then gives them hokey accessories like glittery capes and angels' wings. Clearly they require utter skill, but their ultimate aesthetic value is akin to Victorian kitsch. Better is his mask series, with stylized human faces shot through with veins of fabulous color.
Disparities III continues through Saturday, January 22, at Philabaum Contemporary Art Glass Gallery, 711 S. Sixth Ave. Gallery hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. For more information call 884-7404.