Glass, metal, wool collide
“THE MARIONI FAMILY”
In mounting their newest acquisition to the collection, Tacoma Art Museum had a challenge: How to display nearly 400 artworks by a huge variety of people while highlighting just three – Seattle artist Paul Marioni, his daughter Marina and son Dante. In gifting his personal art collection to the museum, Paul Marioni has beefed up TAM’s glass component exponentially, offering a free survey of the last few decades of Northwest glass art plus Marina’s inventive mixed-media jewelry. But it’s definitely a challenge to hang: tiny brooches, enormous vessels, two- and three-dimensional work.
Curator Rock Hushka’s solution was to put Dante up one end, Marina up the other and Paul and his buddies sprinkled throughout the middle in a kind of nod to the eccentric, crowded-salon style of display Paul has in his own studio apartment, jammed to the gills with shelves, art and color.
It doesn’t work.
What could be a joyous gluttony of eye-popping creativity has been anodized by space into a diluted gallery hang. Half is on shelves, yes – a single one here, a group of five there – but isolated at a strange stomach level that isn’t quirky or meaningful. The other half is spread out without much cross-reference. Even Dante’s elegantly tall vessels are dwarfed by the towering walls, and Marina’s jewelry is tucked away in a corner, most of it in a Lucite case that slopes (unbelievably) away from the viewer’s path.
Even the screen showing the 2011 PBS “Craft in America” episode on the Marioni family is more eye-catching.
It’s sad, because this is great art. Marionis aside, the collection represents a who’s who of studio glass art. There’s Cappy Thompson, with a leaded window of a red devil basking, like Ferdinand the bull, in a field of gentle flowers. There’s Richard Marquis, whose 1990 “Rocket Jar” bursts penis-like out of yellow glass jelly. There’s a Chihuly Venetian and his first-ever (apparently) Macchia from 1981, small and subdued but a herald of things to come. There’s William Morris, with a restrained canework vase slumped like a flower petal. Walter Lieberman paints an infinitely sad face on his vase, Jaroslav Rona neatly decapitates a crystal Cubist figure, Lino Tagliapietra makes an effortlessly delicate sweet dish and Benjamin Moore a vase of iridescent, concentric circles.
There are all the names you’d expect to see, and all the others you need to know. There’s even a shelf of artist-painted beer glasses and a delightful section of tribute portraits of Paul himself: He’s hairy in cast glass, smoking in a Venetian goblet, enameled onto a skinny vase like an Afro, and scratchily fragile in blackened steel wool (that’s Paul’s famous frizzy hair) and wavy cast glass by a wry Marina.
Then there’s Paul himself. A Seattlite by way of Cincinnati and San Francisco, he not only saw the Pilchuck Glass School through over a decade, but he also developed his own method of detailing images onto molten glass, earning a patent for the technique and receiving a lifetime achievement award from the Glass Art Society in 2004. Here, at TAM, he’s interspersed among his friends’ work, which is maybe how he’d prefer it. His symbolism of death, life and the connections between range over vessels and two-dimensional works: the “Woman with Whale Kites” running joyfully naked across a pink-and-lavender vase, swirled black faces over larger vessels hinting at sadness, the stylized leaded glass portrait of bombs and weapons in “The Warriors,” the beaky alien faces of the Bagman vases and “Twelve Birds Mask.” There’s also a very clever 2012 reworking of a 1973 idea in “All it Takes (Nerve),” where the title’s last word is etched sharply in transparent hung glass and shadowed onto the wall behind, a cursive echo.
On the left-hand end of the gallery is Dante’s work, a beautiful assortment of vessels from opaque color fields to shimmering canework to intricate goblets, all with his signature elegance and skill. On the far right is Marina’s self-taught jewelry art, which deserves a lot more flourish than it gets: a Dia de los Muertos skull brooch with dice for eyes, a phenomenally delicate embroidered tornado in a setting of Victorian jet, a mammoth ivory egg tucked into a tiny silver birdcage, ghostly hands on earrings, a tattooed ring. It’s a perfect marriage of technical finesse and in-your-face attitude.
The Paul Marioni Glass Collection is something Tacoma – not just Tacoma Art Museum – should be proud to have. It’s just a pity the gallery doesn’t show it that way.
‘MARIE WATT: LODGE’
It’s taken a while, but Portland artist Marie Watt is getting a solo show in Tacoma – and it’s a big one. Filling the largest gallery at TAM with felt, blankets and textile art, the Seneca tribal member tells stories – ours, hers – through fabric with grace and eloquent expression. And she’ll be here in person this weekend to give a lecture and lead a workshop.
“Lodge” looks at the last decade of Watts’ work. Organized by anthropology professor Rebecca Dobkins, the show’s pieces complement each other in form, medium and narrative, and – most unusual for a museum installation – literally invite the viewer in to be a tangible part.
It’s the blankets that first strike you as you walk in. Piled high, squatting solidly or teetering precipitously, the stacks of gently pastel blankets are Watts’ signature way of symbolizing humanity. One stack is folded tightly, towering high with unbelievable certainty – softness given architectural solidity. Another stack is folded into tight three-inch squares, soaring like a beanpole and cast in bronze – softness made eternal.
But it’s the stack in the middle that holds the most stories. Human-height, reassuringly large, it’s a neatly trimmed pile of community stories. The blanket that wrapped a beloved aunt until she died. The blanket that lulled a kindergartner to sleep every day. The blanket that made it safely, along with its owner, out of a Nazi concentration camp. Tags that you can pick up and read tell the stories; another work plays more stories over headphones and invites visitors to write their own. It’s at once brilliant and simple; art that unifies yet defines.
Around the walls are works that Watt has developed over the years as a kind of tangent to her three-dimensional blanket sculpture. Abstract wool samplers, embroidered together in geometrics evoking everything from Mondriaan to 9/11, invite your imagination. Portraits of Native American historical figures do less, the literalness combining badly with the fabric’s chunkiness. Prints take away Watt’s genius for texture and don’t really offer much form or line in return.
None of this matters, however, when you see “Engine.” Loaned from the Fabric Workshop and Museum in Philadelphia, this room-sized installation creates an igloo-wigwam from wood slats and dark gray felt. Take your shoes off and wander in and you become immersed, literally, in Watt’s storytelling imagination. Felt walls are imprinted, cave-like, with handprints; the floor is soft underfoot; a mock fire glows and felt stalactites drip furrily from the ceiling. Watt has mounded felt into comfy boulders for sitting, and in this cozy, animalistic womb you can sit and listen to Native American storytellers Elaine Grinnell, Roger Fernandes and Johnny Moses weave magic from words just as Watt has done with wool. The video projection’s a bit cheesy, but shut your eyes and breathe in the warm air and nothing can distract you from this extraordinary experience.
If you go
What: “The Marioni Family: Radical Experimentations in Glass and Jewelry” and “Marie Watt: Lodge”
When: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Wednesday-Sunday, 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Thursdays through Sept. 23 (Marioni)/Oct. 7 (Watt)
Where: Tacoma Art Museum, 1701 Pacific Ave., Tacoma
Events: Artist lecture “Blankets, Stories and Communities,” 1 p.m. July 21, $15; artist family workshop on personal flagmaking, 2:30-5 p.m. July 21, $35 for one adult and one child. $5 discount if buying both.
Admission: $10/$8; free for 5 and younger and every Thursday 5-8 p.m.
Information: 253-272-4258, tacomaartmuseum.org