“Water Forest” has moved inside the Museum of Glass — and turned into a cathedral of air.
In his first solo exhibition in the Pacific Northwest, Brooklyn artist Howard Ben Tré has taken the combination of sand-cast glass and metal that he’s known for (and which produced the vertical columns of “Water Forest,” out on the museum’s waterfront plaza) and played with its form and density inside. The result, “Lightness of Being,” is a long, hushed gallery inhabited by cathedral-like pillars, echoed by smaller vessels and finally flat images around the walls, all resonating with Ben Tré’s translucent minimalism.
At first blush, “Lightness of Being” is visually powerful. One of Pilchuck Glass School’s first students, Ben Tré later worked with Dale Chihuly at the Rhode Island School of Design and has art in 80 museums worldwide. The 65-year-old is a master of material and voice. About a dozen pillars, just taller than humans, stretch down the spacious gallery like a South Indian temple. Their bases, middles and tops alternate foam-green cast glass with cast bronze, in patinas from rich russet to gray to marble green. Each is slightly different (curves, points, flutes, cones) but all speak the same language. Around the walls, 2-foot pillars on plinths alternate with copper shapes on paper, continuing the random rhythm of form in a way that promises order yet brings difference. All reference architectural forms — minaret, lighthouse, totem pole — in a subtle way that’s also enhanced by the artist’s ceiling-high sketches, as precise as architect’s blueprints.
The work itself is quite beautiful, in an industrial, monumental way. The cast glass seems to float upward with the lightness of trapped air bubbles that Ben Tré lets accumulate in the upper sections; the surface contrasts between rough glass and smooth metal; the palette is calming, meditative. Unusually, these sculptures stand free form, with no cords or barriers between the audience and the art — a nearness of presence that’s both startling and peaceful.
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What’s unsettling is the actual installation, done by the artist himself. While informative to watch, the video in the anteroom throws Ben Tré’s Brooklyn tones across the hushed cathedral silence, and the pillars themselves are not all well-lit. Some lights are far apart or angled oddly, others simply don’t work — so that while some pillars bathe in a pool of soft golden light, others languish, like forgotten gods, in shadow. The sterile white walls also don’t help the cathedral effect — why not paint the whole thing the same stone gray as the ceiling, which works brilliantly (although unintentionally)? The overall effect of all this is unnerving, as if you’ve walked into a half-hung show after the museum has closed for the night.
Despite this, “Lightness of Being” is a marvelous extension of what Tacomans have been seeing for years outside in “Water Forest.” Here the glass (not acrylic) is clean, the forms are unique, the pragmatic industrialism is tempered by a dreamier artistry. If “Water Forest” is the amplified band on the plaza, “Lightness” is the esoteric chamber group playing Schoenberg in the gallery, to a respectful, hushed audience.