Bright curvy optical illusions. Shadows like paintings. Colors that vanish and reappear as you walk by. Seattle artist David Huchthausen knows how to sculpt light just as well as glass. And though the “retrospective selection” of his work deep inside the Museum of Glass is limited, it’s still a mesmerizing display of one man’s imagination — and an invitation to your own.
A glassblower whose Fulbright study in Germany in the 1970s led him to explore many of the coldworking techniques popular today, Huchthausen (now in his mid-60s) deserves his place in the canon of studio glass art. But what makes him so popular at the Museum of Glass — as seen by a whopping 2,000 visitor votes at the ongoing “#BeTheCurator” exhibit nearby — is probably less his modernist aesthetic and phenomenal skill and more the gee-whiz factor of his work. Huchthausen plays with glass and asks you to play with it too as you walk around his work, hypnotized by the way his layered colors reflect and refract off the curved, mirrored surfaces of his space-age prisms.
The show begins with a prelude: several cases of his 1970s blown-glass vessels. They might be in traditional shapes, but already Huchthausen is showing the linear, graphic experimentation of his future: One cylinder has a acid-cut pattern of sharp white peaks alternating with red varsity-font diagonals. A round black vase is etched with a cross-hatch on the outside that plays optically with a glittery spray of pink and green air bubbles inside — ephemeral color in a solid material. His “Fantasy Vessels” have chunky landscapes drawn onto the surface with glass rods and a torch, while his “Ritual Figurines” play with your expectation of reality: upturned doll heads in grainy glass set atop curling elongations of blown glass like half-alive plants.
But then you move into the 1980s, and into the main central room, walled in charcoal black to highlight the intense saturation of color that radiates from every piece. Now coldworking his glass, Huchthausen adopts geometrics as the basis for design. His “Construction Field” is small blocks of candy-striped opaque glass like a tiny cityscape. That leads to the “Leitungs Scherben” series: polished black glass slabs, gridded and layered into a modernist design, then shocked into jagged edges with the application of hot glass. Gold-shot shadows hover beneath like their own art piece, while the sculptures themselves alternate solid power and fractured tension. This is glass as a solid, unyielding as granite.
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The 1990s merge this solidity of design with an exploration of refracted light. The black slabs become transparent, projecting color from their internal layers. “Winter Strike” sits poised like a fighter jet in sea-blue, aqua and white, the stripes honed and the rough edges flowing like the ocean around an island.
And then, from the 2000s, Huchthausen discovers the technique that captivates viewers: Geometric color inside or atop a clear prism, that bounces internally off convex chunks scooped out of the other sides. His imagination for this sculpture of light and color seems endless. “Echo Chamber” is a cube with a convex lens on the bottom and four curved-in corners, creating an illusion of eternally-shifting hemispheres covered like the Tacoma Dome with quilts of gridded color. There are spheres, bisected or quadrisected with discs of color. Another sphere reflects and magnifies a circular page from an old German book; a cylinder shot through with a disc of primary colors creates an inside-out kaleidoscope. There’s a prism like a chiseled planet with a galaxy of bright, otherworldly spheres inside; and all of them reflect each other, the wall texts and museum visitors like a hall of mirrors.
This isn’t the first Huchthausen retrospective, nor is it the biggest. A 2012 show at the Dow Museum of Science and Art in Midland, Michigan, contained a much broader, smoother sweep of the artist’s career, as well as many more of his sci-fi spheres. Nor does the Museum of Glass show (titled “A Retrospective Selection”) actually do well what Bonnie Wright, curator of education and community engagement, says is the goal: to explain the pioneering techniques that created these works. Wall panels are text only, and in-process photos (like those in “#BeTheCurator”) would help greatly in explaining these coldworking processes that are unlike what visitors usually see in the hot shop. The 10-minute Huchthausen video in the museum’s theater spends too much time on the artist’s beautiful loft space and collections, and not enough on his art-making.
What the exhibit does, however, is fire up your imagination. Nestled densely inside the black walls, the pieces invite you to do exactly what Huchthausen says he wants you to: walk around and around and around, stare inside them and decide for yourself what they look like or mean. And finally, to simply marvel at this astonishing, fluid medium that plays in so many dimensions.
David Huchthausen: A retrospective selection
When: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays, noon-5 p.m. Sundays, 10 a.m.-8 p.m. third Thursdays through Jan. 8.
Where: Museum of Glass, 1801 Dock St., Tacoma.
Cost: $15 general; $13 AAA members; $12 senior, student, military; $5 ages 6-12; free for 5 and younger and 5-8 p.m. third Thursdays.
Information: 866-4-MUSEUM, museumofglass.org.