There’s more than meets the eye in the exhibition Katherine Gray: (Being) in a Hot Shop, hosted by the Toledo Museum of Art. This intimate exhibition of glass art and glass-inspired art by Canadian-born artist Katherine Gray is a conceptual and immersive show that aspires to give visitors a sense of what it’s like to be in a glass studio, and it does this through touch, sight, sound, and smell. It’s a multimedia show, but most of the works are glass, and for this exhibition the medium is the message.
Glassblowing is a multisensory experience for both artists and spectators alike, so this exhibition incorporates nearly all the senses. Upon entering the space, viewers are welcome to touch the various glassblowing tools used by Joseph Rosenberger, a longtime veteran of Toledo’s iconic Libby Glass Company back in the 19thcentury when it was in its first iteration as New England Glass.
Nearby, a sculptural ensemble of four monumental glass vessels playfully subvert the nature of the bottle as a vessel of containment, and they disperse the distinct hotshop smells of steaming wood, beeswax, wet newspaper, and Kevlar, each material of which plays a small but essential role in the glassblowing process—for example, Kevlar gloves are used to transfer the completed work from the blowpipe to a special oven, which safely allows the glass to gradually cool to room temperature over the course of many days (or, depending on the size of the form, sometimes weeks and even months). For this work, Gray collaborated with master-perfumer Kendra Hart.
Central to the glassblowing process of course is the furnace, which Gray represents in several minimalist sculptures mounted on the wall. Her Iridescent Aura Diptych comprises two squares of iridized blown glass in which viewers see a radiating sunburst of color. The colors subtly change and pulsate as we move around the diptych, and in this work Gray abstractly visualizes the tactile sensation of working so close to blinding heat. Similarly, the two works which comprise the ensemble This Makes Me Think of That also subtly change color when we approach. Here, Gray takes the furnace and the glory hole (from which glassblowers collect molten glass onto their blowpipes) and reduces them into the elemental shapes of the circle and the square.
This exhibition’s pièce de résistance is Gray’s glass and light installation A Rainbow Like You. Here, Gray illuminates a glass table from below, upon which rest a veritable rainbow of glass goblets, cups, and saucers. Their luminous reflections are cast onto the wall, where the colors merge and mingle in surprising ways, creating a brilliant and immensely satisfying symphony of color. The glass vessels themselves are created in various historical styles, so the work is a kind of introduction to the history of glassmaking. The magic of the installation is in Gray’s ability to take common, domestic glass forms and with them create a work of arresting beauty which even evokes the shafts of light and color we might expect to see in grand spaces like Chartres Cathedral.
After viewing this exhibit, viewers should complete the experience by wandering over to the TMA’s Glass Pavilion to actually watch glassblowers at work. (Being) in a Hotshop can ultimately only go so far to convey the sights and smells of the real thing, after all. But Gray’s intention was certainly not to replicate hotshop in the first place, and we should be glad—the glass furnaces blaze at about 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit, after all. In this exhibition, Gray celebrates glassmaking itself with palpable affection, and it’s abundantly clear that for her the glassmaking process is a labor of love.
Katherine Gray: (Being) in a Hotshop is on view at the Toledo Art Museum through May 12