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Through the Looking Glass: Boise Art Museum Shows Off a Glass Wonderland


The coincidence has a mystical quality, something akin to the the waxing and waning of the moon, or the orbital whimsey of comets: Every 17 years, the Boise Art Museum opens an exhibition made from glass.

The first, a group show, took place in 1984. Cutting-edge at its time, BAM Curator of Art Nicole Herden said it was "meant to show the fact that artists were really taking new steps in glass artistry, taking it away from just the traditional vessels that had been created in the past and moving more toward expression and sculptural work."

A solo exhibition of work by glass sculptor Dale Chihuly came next, in 2001. Its appearance filled the museum with multicolored blown-glass forms, and local art buffs still mention it to BAM Executive Director Melanie Fales on the street.

Over the years, those comments piled up, and the height of that pile may have contributed to the fact that 17 years later, like clockwork, BAM opened A New State of Matter: Contemporary Glass in 2018. Featuring 19 artists and 29 works from around the world, this latest exhibition was curated and organized by BAM. It took Fales and Herden roughly two years—not to mention a lot of research, and a $50,000 grant from the Laura Moore Cunningham Foundation—to put together.

Fales said the pieces, which will fill five of the museum's galleries through Sunday, Feb. 3, are "not what you would normally expect" from glass work—which is probably an understatement. From Steffen Dam's fictional glass-encased jellyfish to Rachel Moore's toddler's shoes stained with decomposing cherries (the shoes are glass, the cherries were not), every turn reveals something unexpected. And that's even before visitors reach a wooden table of oversized blue marbles glowing with an evil green light. A nearby plaque explains they're made from "alluring but radioactive uranium glass," and meant to make a statement about the long-lasting dangers of nuclear fallout. Artists Etsuko Ichikawa named the piece "Leaving a Legacy."

Charlotte Potter (American, born 1981), "Pending" (installation detail), 2014, cameo engraved glass and metal, 156 by 360 by 96 inches, courtesy of the artist and Heller Gallery, New York
  • Charlotte Potter (American, born 1981), "Pending" (installation detail), 2014, cameo engraved glass and metal, 156 by 360 by 96 inches, courtesy of the artist and Heller Gallery, New York

Herden said she chose those artists, and the 13 others, because they use their medium to make social statements—what she called another step forward for glass. She and Fales pointed to two pieces in particular as standouts with strong messages: "Pending" by Charlotte Potter and "To Those Who Have" by Jeffrey Stenbom.

Both Potter and Stenbom's pieces hang in Gallery 1, directly left of the art museum's main entrance. Potter's installation of cameo-engraved glass portraits mounted on metal spindles takes up an entire wall of the gallery, each of the hundreds of tiny portraits protruding into the room like loose limbs in a bus' center aisle.

"She's using that [traditional Roman cameo-engraved glass] process in a very contemporary way, utilizing it in a conceptual way, making reference to all of her different Facebook friends that she has acquired over a specific course of time," Herden explained.

Indeed, a closer look reveals that each blue and white engraving is a tiny Facebook profile picture: two women hugging, a tiger roaring, a smoky white silhouette playing the piano. The cameos are grouped on the wall according to where their subjects live in the world, and mounted on spindles whose lengths corresponds to their intimacy with Potter, a literal map of closeness.

But even Potter's massive display fails to compete with "To Those Who Have" on gravitas. Above a low spotlit plinth hangs a mammoth confection of kiln-cast glass, acrylic, vinyl-coated steel cable and blown glass in the shape of a jumbo-sized pair of military dog tags dangling from a chain. It's an ode to artist Stenbom's time in the military and the struggles he and other veterans face after returning home. In his artist's statement, Stenbom explains that he left the tags blank to indicate they could belong to any soldier.

Fales compared the dog tags to a human body dangling from the ceiling—a comparison that works for both size and emotional weight.

"It has a very demanding presence," Herden said.