Amber Cowan: Second-Life Glass

Shotgun Review

Amber Cowan: Second-Life Glass

By Sienna Freeman November 30, 2014

Upon entering the Museum of Craft and Design’s current exhibition, Amber Cowan: Second-Life Glass, I was immediately struck by a sense of growth or gestation. Cowan’s complex sculptures seemed to bloom before me in a rapid, viral expansion of objects. It was as if each intricate blown, sculpted, or flameworked element had sprung from an internal living source, linked together beneath the surface by a hidden rhizome-like mass.

Cowan’s source material is heavy with past narratives of American cultural consumption and factory production. Made of American pressed glass from the late 1950s to the mid-1980s and industrial cullet (scrap glass intended for recycling) acquired at thrift shops, flea markets, or collected from cullet dumps, each of her works are repurposed.1 Prior to the 1960s, American glass pieces were typically produced in an industrial factory, until the invention of a portable and inexpensive furnace allowed artists to melt and blow glass in independent studios.2 Produced by some of the best-known (but now closed) American glass factories, the glass and cullet Cowan uses literally and figuratively represents the remains of this industrial history. Her works can be viewed as reincarnated objects born from colors and chemical compositions of glass likely never to be produced again.

Amber Cowan. Gray 80, 2014; flame-worked glass; 64 x 28 x 4 in. Courtesy of the Artist and Museum of Craft and Design, San Francisco. Photo: Amber Cowan.

Cowan’s Gray 80 (2014) spans a little more than five feet in height by two feet in width, almost the exact same measurements as the artist’s own body.3 Composed of hundreds of tiny hand-worked elements, each suggests different biological forms like ventricles, blood cells, flower stamens, pistils, and rose buds. Monochromatic in warm middle gray, the presence of the work calls to mind visions of monolithic monuments, moss on a tombstone, or fresh grass on a grave. Speaking simultaneously of mourning and preservation, Grey 80 serves as a cultural memorial to the American studio-glass movement, as well as a physical reminder of the fragile and complex human condition. Disguised by the chaos of the surrounding glass foliage are two small horse heads, nestled side by side. They read as two internal facets of one entity in psychic conversation, bringing to mind Jungian dream symbolism associated with the horse as a representation of wild intuition or repressed instinctive aspects of human nature.4

Moist, flesh-like, and malleable, Chocolate Renewal (2014) reads as a carnal formation. It sits on the edge of a pedestal, and its back, pressed against the wall, appears to inch upward. Or it could be that it has slid down the surface of the wall and collected itself on the pedestal. Either way, the object surely possesses a type of corporeal autonomy, almost grotesque in aesthetic, separating itself from Cowan’s remaining body of work. Anxieties around the corporeal materiality of craft histories are embodied here. Chocolate Renewal recalls the active and functional nature of craft objects closely associated with bodily functions and our sometimes messy physicality.

Amber Cowan. Chocolate Renewal, 2014; flame-worked recycled Fenton glass; 22 x 15 x 12 in. Courtesy of the Artist and Museum of Craft and Design, San Francisco. Photo: Amber Cowan.

In contrast to both Gray 80 and Chocolate Renewal, Cowan’s The Lion and the Fox (2014) seems to be less about history and humanity’s place in it, and more about the enchanting world of flora and fauna. Made from flame-worked milk glass with a matte but luminous surface, the hexagonal form references a wide-open vessel, filled to capacity with pulsating forms of natural life. The vibrancy of a moonlit jungle is implied here, as colorless trees, vines, and roots circle two seated animal figures, whose outward gaze seems to look into the future through bright red eyes. Cowan’s theme of the memorial is continued, as The Lion and the Fox suggests a monument to the preservation of nature—an unyielding force that is both resilient and vulnerable to the will of humanity.

While Cowan’s Second-Life Glass surely comments on the trendy idea of upcycling and contemporary maker/consumer culture, the body of work is successful in its subtle subversion of concept through the artist’s skillful and seductive use of materials. Serving as a reminder of U.S. history through the metaphor of glass,5 a material that appears solid but is always truly moving as a liquid form, the work also generates questions concerning the transitory nature of life and the temporality of the human body. Feelings of intrigue and aversion are evoked by the work, leaving this viewer to ponder connections between human corporeality, reproduction, and the human-made material world. 

Amber Cowan: Second-Life Glass is on view at Museum of Craft and Design, in San Francisco, through January 4, 2015.

Notes

  1. All technical material and process information has been obtained via the official press release for the exhibition.
  2. http://www.cmog.org/article/american-studio-glass-movement
  3. Information gathered from an in-person conversation with the artist on 10/17/2014.
  4. Carl Jung, Man and His Symbols (New York: Anchor Books, Doubleday, 1964), 174.
  5. Additional information about the history and timeline of the American Studio Glass movement can be found here: http://www.glassart.org/Studio_Glass_Movement_History.html

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