Arts & Culture

Museum of Glass exhibit turns breast cancer into clear, fragile beauty

The irony is unmissable.

In 1999, New York mixed media artist Shirley Klinghoffer first exhibited a show of 18 slumped-glass sculptures of female forms, made from hospital supports for conformal radiation therapy for breast cancer patients. Then, in 2006, when she’d put the finishing touches on a pink bronze-and-tulle homage to the strength of women who endure this disease, she was diagnosed with breast cancer.

Now, Klinghoffer has reassembled her work for the Museum of Glass in “CRT Revisited,” a show that uses the fragility and beauty of clear glass to express that of human suffering.

The show is tucked away in an inner room of the cavernous MOG galleries. But it packs an emotional punch.

On one wall hang nine armatures, torso-shaped in gray plastic and taped together to form a body support for women as they go through the process where machines form a 3-D image of their tumor before blasting it with radiation in the same shape. The armatures look like bizarre garbage — one even has TRASH written on the foam insert — until you step closer and see the female form of head, shoulders, arms, all embedded like negative space into the plastic. They then become a visual litany of what is left behind after radiation treatment, when the woman herself is gone.

Contrasting this dark grayness, on the other side of the room, are the glass forms made from these armatures. Creating molds of heat-resistant Fiberflex copied from the armatures, Klinghoffer then places a sheet of clear plate glass over the mold and fires it at 2,500 degrees, just enough to melt the glass like lava over the mold. After cooling, the glass is now a woman’s torso, just an inch thin, with slightly bubbled, realistic texture.

Klinghoffer has arranged the glass torsos over a stark white floor backed by a white wall; calm yet fragile, faces turned down, enduring. Light as air, they seem about to float away like dreams. On the wall behind, a projection of quotes from breast cancer survivors emphasizes that realness: the struggle, the unexpected gratitude, the sudden suicidal thoughts, the effort to separate self from body, the fear of the unknown, the constant work of letting go expectations for your life.

And on the edge of the exhibit is “Witty in Pink,” the sculpture made on the day of the artist’s own diagnosis. Cushioned like a flower with pale, ballet-pink tulle petals, its core is a sphere of bronze studded with nipples. The dialogue between fragility and strength is clear; but the implications of color — a dialogue between pink life and gray death — is more subtle.

Klinghoffer, in her artist statement, says her goal is to “discern beauty in ugly truths,” and with glass — not her usual medium — she achieves this perfectly, its melting of substance an echo of how a human body reacts to radiation and cancer, its transparency an echo of a life stripped to essentials, its fragility an echo of human existence.

Also up in the museum lobby: new work by native artists including Preston Singletary, Raven Skyriver and Marvin Oliver; a wall of photography by young cancer patients at Mary Bridge Children’s Hospital, courtesy of Pablove Shutterbugs and a partnership between the hospital and museum; and Joseph Rossano’s “Vanity,” a delicate meditation on extinct species by way of curiosity cabinets containing glass sculptures in oil and cloudy paintings on glass, the medium veiling rather than clarifying these tiny, lost species.