Sunday, April 10, 2011

Tucson Glass Festival

The Tucson Glass Festival was held from April 8-10, 2011 to celebrate art in glass. Originally the show was planned to be national but too many participants canceled after Arizona passed its racist anti-immigration law earlier in the year, so the organizers soldiered on with a local festival, and it was intimate and successful (from the point of view of a consumer of it, anyway).

There were tours of the Sonoran Glass Art Academy, which included demonstrations and instruction, with plenty of “product” for sale in the galleries, and likewise at the Philabaum glass studio and gallery, and other galleries around town.

A special highlight was a demonstration of technique by the brothers de la Torre, Einar and Jamex, originally of Guadalajara, now living and working in Esenada, Mexico and San Diego. They worked at Tom Philabaum’s studio in Tucson to produce a fantastic, life-sized glass head in their signature style of cartoonish, colorful, ironic, and witty construction that the three of them had designed the night before in the Ethiopian restaurant across the street from the studio.

The brothers were assisted by Tom Philabaum and a team of experienced glassworkers. The two-hour project was fascinating and almost medieval in its exercise of techniques that go back many centuries. I asked Tom Philabaum about the absence of safety equipment. All those bare arms and legs look awfully vulnerable moving around glass at fourteen hundred degrees, I said. But he replied, "I would rather work naked. You have to be able to feel the heat from the glass to know what it is doing." The man is clearly one with his material!

The glass bust that emerged was grotesquely beautiful, pinkish, as if its scalp had been removed, and decorated with something like a crown of laurels, except they were prickly pear pads, and topped with a sort of Mohawk haircut that made the whole thing reminiscent of a conquistador. It’s gaping mouth displayed the words “Baja Rizona.” Why not “Baja Arizona?” someone asked. Because, Jamex said, the two middle “A’s” are combined to one, and then it sounds like somebody is laughing, “Ha-ha, Rizona!” That is the kind of weird, eccentric humor the de la Torre brothers are known for.

The brothers have a major show now at the Tucson Museum of Art, called Borderlandia. It is a show that has traveled through the west, perhaps elsewhere. It presents a wide range of colorful glass pieces, some free-standing, some wall mounted, some animated by electric motors and videos; all of them baroquely elaborate, immensely intricate, and stuffed full of “found” trinkets and souvenirs culled from dollar stores. Some of their iconography is serious, tragicomically cultural, religious, and bitingly political, and some of it is just plain goofy fun.

The work highlights, overall, ethnic commonalities and differences among people living along the southwest border. They use images from Mexico, American pop culture, the Mayas and the Aztecs, and even some pre-Columbian images. Juxtaposition is their preferred method for making narrative comments, such as by filling a traditional religious altar with pop-culture icons and images of politicians. The show is overflowing with political and cultural meaning, but it is also a huge dose of eye-candy and a magnificent display of the glass artist’s craft.

The bizarre bust that the brothers made for the Glass Festival demonstration ended up looking something like a Spanish Conquistador who plays in a punk rock band in a Day of the Dead celebration. It was hastily stuffed into the annealing oven before it could be thoroughly appreciated, but even so, the artists asked the small crowd of observers if there were any early bids for it. The bidding stalled out at $2,000, but at least it was an open.

I’m not sure when the formal bidding for it is, but they said they would not be surprised to see $7,000. Proceeds benefit the nonprofit Sonoran Glass Art Academy’s Youth Development Program.

Viva el vidrio!

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