There are times when you want (or need) to be challenged by art — and then there are times when you just want to gaze in wonder.
Since fall, the Tacoma Museum of Glass has filled its front gallery with one of those eye-candy shows. “Into the Deep” is where you can escape the winter gray and dive into an underwater world where glass becomes glittery coral, waving kelp and translucent water in a visual tour-de-force.
Like the best group shows, “Into the Deep” contains a banquet of diverse artists hovering firmly around the central theme. With each artist comes both a different way of using glass and a different admiration of our Earth’s oceans.
Shayna Leib kicks it off at the entrance with work that straddles the division between two-dimensional and sculpture. Endless numbers of 2- to 4-inch blown glass tendrils, stems, shafts and curls emerge in twisting clusters from the metal frame like anemone arms as the tide returns. Each 9-inch square takes the artist 45 minutes to make, and there’s a kind of poetic justice in the complexity and creativity of this — glass in infinite microcosm, just like an intertidal zone around a rock.
Kait Rhoads is equally complex, with hundreds of bolt-like hexagons bound with copper wire into a glittering, multi-faceted mass. “Red Polyp” waves stiff arms like coral, “Calyx” lurks with opening “mouths,” the aqua-teal-gold inside each hexagon giving the white glass a brilliant sheen that’s hard-edged and organic, just like real coral.
Taliaferro Jones uses minimalism to explore form in the ocean itself: an “Undulation” of three aqua kiln-worked waves, an “Embrace” of curvy green and indigo shapes that filter light exactly as deep water does. It’s only when Jones spackles the outside with silver that you remember that it’s glass.
Then the exhibit moves into a figurative world, no less marvelous. From husband and wife Paul DeSomma and Marsha Blaker-DeSomma comes a blown-glass giant Pacific octopus clambering delicately over baby-pink coral. Their glass is as translucent as octopus skin, showing red webby veins underneath. From Vittorio Costantini come tiny flameworked shellfish (prawns, sea stars, a hermit crab), incredibly lifelike, and elevating that European tradition of glass ornaments to something infinitely more detailed.
There’s glass as barnacled buoys in a rusty lobster trap, glass as jewel-toned mussels clinging to luscious gray rocks (both by Benjamin Kikkert). There’s Kelly O’Dell’s liquid-like droplets of teal-green glass dripping hugely down the wall, an oceanic universe of swirling kelp and organisms inside each one.
Even the ultra-realistic sculpture has something to say about both glass and ocean: Ellen Sollod blows microbes large-scale in clear glass with scientific precision; Raven Skyriver makes a red devil squid, a complacent salmon and a diving seal that capture sheer animal energy in a single moment. James Minson takes the astonishing variety of a coral reef to a fantastical place of undulating ribbons and spiny, spiky creatures; while Dale Chihuly’s yellow-spotted aqua Seaform celebrates, as all his works do, the utter, intense glory of color.
Perhaps the most clever transformation of glass comes from Hiroshi Yamano, who inverts a blown-glass vessel, etched on the side with Asian-style fish, into a quasi-shipwreck and balances on top a tiny fish that’s “crumbling” with the copper-green patina of “rust” — a beautiful illusion, and the only work in the whole show that comes anywhere close to reminding you how fragile and threatened our oceans now are.
“Into the Deep” might not challenge anyone’s long-held stereotypes or world views. But as a way of showing us the beauty and virtuosity of glass — and the underwater world — there’s no better exhibit to dive into.