By John Thomason
By Benjy Caplan
By Artburst Miami
By Carlos Suarez De Jesus
By Daniel Reskin
In glass blowing, the gaffer shapes a molten mass of glass by blowing air into it through a tube. Around the first millennium B.C., Syrians invented the craft, which quickly became a rich export to all parts of the Roman Empire. These early vessels had a decorative purpose (shaped as shells, clusters of grapes, or human heads). Syrian blowers later executed more abstract, spherical forms without the use of molds, a technique that has remained mostly unchanged to the present day.
An important artist working with this medium is Jean-Michel Othoniel. His pieces have been shown in Paris, Barcelona, Tokyo, New York, and Berlin. Yet Othoniel is not a glass artisan himself. Instead he is a visual artist who conceptualizes and produces the pieces other expert blowers actually make for him. This sort of vicarious process is not new. Artists usually team with goldsmiths, ceramists, quilters, and furniture-makers to put forward particular visions that otherwise would remain uncreated.
Othoniel started on a different path, though. His earlier work acknowledged a debt to Minimalism, Arte Povera, Marcel Broodthaers, Duchamp, and the literary universe of Borges and Raymond Roussel. But this is hardly the case now with "Othoniel -- Crystal Palace" at the Museum of Contemporary Art, a show much closer in mood to French novelist Joris-Karl Huysmans (1848-1907) than the rationalist ironies of a Duchamp or Borges.
There's no contradiction. I find nineteenth-century France a more nuanced epoch than the heavy-handed Twentieth Century. Fin-de-siècle French art bore the brunt of Modernity amid social and scientific revolutions (recall Pasteurization, Darwinian theory, and the inventions of the phonograph, the telephone, the light bulb, the skyscraper, and the museum, to name just a few). Ironically, while Modernity was supposed to improve the world's living conditions, many perceived its transformations as bringing about exploitation and social upheaval.
A new "modern angst" appeared. Huysmans, one of its prophets, defined this mood in his book A rebours (Against Nature) as "tortured by the present, disgusted by the past, and terrified and dismayed by the future."
The new visual style, Art Nouveau, reacted against technology and the machine with aesthetic vengeance. Nature became at once exceptional and clichéd. It wasn't art, after all. So in order to elaborate the forms of the natural world for aesthetic purposes, art expressed itself in a decorative manner. For instance, Art Nouveau's swirling, tendril-like motifs, swelling vegetal forms, curious melting patterns, and bulbous shapes that overtook European arts, architecture, and graphic design.
It's no coincidence that in 2000, Kiosque des noctambules, Othoniel's installation of two domes made of jewel-like glass spheres and aluminum, was set up at the Palais Royal/Musée du Louvre Metro station (www.insecula.com/us/oeuvre/O0012656.html O0012656.html). Visibly, Othoniel has points of reference with architect Hector Guimard, whose plantlike, cast-iron entrance structures for the Paris Metro are important Art Nouveau emblems. Within this context, Othoniel's "Palace" at MoCA can be seen as a postmodern gesture, a gigantic "retro" installation and a journey of fantastic surprises.
Beyond the installation's entrance (on the left) are the artist's watercolor studies, while opposite them is a floor-to-ceiling blue curtain. Walking the long corridor, there are clues of what's to come: four full-size lanterns in Murano blown glass adorned with needles and crowned with phallic stems, and a huge red glass necklace. The watercolors are Othoniel's first step in conceiving and realizing these plans; they are also a door to the artist's sensibility for the expressive and not-yet-realized possibilities of the material.
Take a 90-degree turn into Lágrimas, a group of 60 jars filled with water containing about 1000 glass pendants (stars, flowers, and other leaf forms) made in Monterrey, Mexico. Inspired by popular traditions, these pieces -- in size and execution -- are quite handsome. Now walk parallel to the blue curtain divider that was left behind, which is richly perforated and brocaded with gold.
Next are Othoniel's "banners," fifteen richly decorated blown-glass stanchions crowned with suggestive organic forms. The atmosphere of fantasy and longing is hardened by the weight of the form, but overt in its burst of color.
One example is Paysage amoureux, an impressive assemblage (already acquired by the Cartier Foundation for Contemporary Art in Paris): a luscious display of red- and amber-colored necklaces (some fastened, some hanging loose from the wall), decked with all sorts of needles, small hearts, fishhooks, and orbs. I was astonished by the arrangement, as if inside a vision of a princess's private boudoir; lavishly coated but fragile, ephemeral, and feminine.
After Paysage, pass Le Collier porte (Gate Necklace), a striking golden blown glass made in Japan, to approach Othoniel's extravagant Unicorn, a fine stop before the show's final prize. In the Physiologus, the well-known Greek bestiary of the Second Century A.D., the unicorn is a fierce animal that can be caught only if a virgin maiden is able to nurture it. Othoniel's Unicorn conveys an ornate, baroque abstraction that is at once cold and seductive.
The journey ends with Mon lit (My Bed), some of which was already seen in his watercolor studies. A super-ornate Murano glass, four-poster structure with its footboard and headboard woven of a layer of tiny aluminum rings, its seat has a pink felt mousse bordered by a seaweed of pale green silk tassels. Mon lit exudes the artifice and fantasy of Sleeping Beauty's tale, and hints at Othoniel's penchant for a self-important humor akin to nineteenth-century French critic Barbey d'Aurevilly, who surmised that the cult of oneself is never exempt from risks.