It's nighttime at the museum and all the galleries are closed and dark. With no light to see them, do the artworks still exist?
In the case of many of the pieces in the new exhibit at New Britain Museum of American Art, the answer is no.
"Glass Today: 21st Century Innovations" is, reflecting its title, a multidimensional exhibit of contemporary glassworking. However, Anna Rogulina, assistant curator at NBMAA, pointed out that the glimmering, sparkling presentation in the McKernan Gallery is as dependent on the gallery lighting as it is on the glassworks themselves.
"With glass, light is essential. It transmits, it reflects, it refracts. Using glass to manipulate light, to see through or beyond the surface, that's what attracts artists to work in this medium," she said. "Once we blocked off the natural light and used the lighting in the gallery, it became very dramatic."
Two pieces in particular literally cease to exist as artworks without this gallery lighting. Stephen Knapp's "Done for the Night" is a scattering of 21 pieces of flat glass — double-thick, with dichroic pigment in between — bolted to the wall. By themselves, they're inexplicable. With the overhead spotlights turned on, however, the placement of the pigmented glass creates a spiky, ceiling-high explosion of color on the wall.
Nearby, Sydney Cash's "Kemosabe" is a series of glass sheets treated with silver and copper and shot through with intersecting lines, and mounted a few inches from each other like knick-knack shelves. Interesting enough. But with the lighting overhead a dramatic geometric pattern of browns and golds appears on the wall.
"You almost get the feeling that the glass is subordinate to the light. Without light, the glass is a complete void," Rogulina said.
Other artworks in the exhibit, from 66 artists, do "exist" without light, but light enhances and alters their presentation, creating shadows, reflections, illusions. They are divided into three groups, "Form and Color," "Nature and Landscape," "Narrative and Symbol."
Jon Kuhn's "Clear to Blue Pendulum Cluster" chandelier casts flickers of light across the doorway area of the gallery. Christopher Reis' "Harp" twinkles as one moves around it, with images constantly shifting within the glass, which has been cut, ground, etched and polished.
Stephen Rolfe Powell's "Sassy Frazzled Flirt" is a lovely round dish all by itself, but with a pinpoint overhead spotlight, it appears to be floating above its own reflection. Judith Schaecter's "The Battle of Carnival and Lent" is a stained-glass window featuring 96 figures battling good and evil, dramatically lit from behind.
Andrew Erdos' "Cheerfully Rooting Through Ruby Red Detritus" grabs the attention, a huge rectangular aquarium of sorts, filled with glass mouse-like creatures and lined with two-way mirrors. Seen from any angle, the images go on and on into infinity. Another showpiece in bright red, Toots Zynsky's "Abbraccio," is an assymetrical vase created by pulling together and hand-molding — using heat-resistant gloves — thousands of glass threads while they are in a kiln.
Some pieces feature glass as one element of a multi-media presentation, such as Thomas Scoon's granite-and-glass figural sculptures, Dan Dailey's bronze-and-glass abstracted musical instruments, José Chardiet's breathtaking "Silver Horn," a chunk of colored glass in a silver vase, and Linda MacNeil's gold-and-glass jewelry designs.
"One interesting aspect of the glass movement is that many artists have incorporated glass into wider practice. Glass has become one of their many vocabularies," Rogulina said. "It's no longer the case that working with glass makes you a glass artist."
Among the other artists are glassworking legends Dale Chihuly and Lino Tagliapietra, as well as two who created site-specific installations for the New Britain show. Mark Riegelman II's step ladder and shovel reflect New Britain's industrial history, with those two elements "bedazzled" with thousands of pieces of shiny glass. Beth Lipman's "Aspects of (American) Life," on exhibit in the Benton Gallery amid the museum's famed Thomas Hart Benton murals, reflects back on those murals, borrowing their imagery in clear, uncolored glass.
In other NBMAA news, the newest artist in the "NEW/NOW" series is Bob Gregson, whose show, "Space to Maneuver," will be up until Oct. 26.
Gregson's sculptures and installations strive to lure people into interactions with strangers, by encouraging them to turn or rearrange panels and objects, alone or with others, or by creating situations that require conversation, such as a "Bicker Booth" or a turnstile installation. This approach stems from the artist's fascination with social dynamics, "the fact that people are never listening to each other when they talk or that we say the same things all the time."
The opening reception is Sunday, July 27, from 2 to 3:30 p.m. Gregson will give gallery talks on Aug. 5 and Sept. 17, and on Oct. 9, Gregson, painter Peter Waite and sculptor Robert Taplin will participate in a lecture on Connecticut artists.
"GLASS TODAY: 21ST CENTURY INNOVATIONS" is at New Britain Museum of American Art, 56 Lexington St., until Sept. 21. http://www.nbmaa.org.