Nature is sufficient unto itself. However, the Pittsburgh Glass Center exhibit Lifeforms 2016 suggests that art about nature demands something notably beyond mimesis.
The show, a sequel to a 2013 PGC exhibit, includes 55 works by artists from 15 countries. A third of the works are close likenesses of plants and animals: mallard, spruce branch, lizards, cherries. But even the best of this subset risks suggesting lovely stunningly crafted (if rather spendy) gift-shop finds.
There are exceptions. Lisa Demagall’s “Radiolaria” giant-sizes a marine protozoa in flame-worked glass — a fantastical representation from a nearly invisible world, all the more apt because radiolaria’s own “skeletons” (as signage informs us) consist of glasslike crystalized silica. Carina Cheung’s delicate “Common Wheat,” complete with threadlike roots, mystifies a familiar organism by displaying it like jewelry. “Autumn Lantern Pods,” by Kathleen Elliot, are gorgeous in flame-worked borosilicate glass, and Evan Kolker’s carnivorous Borean plant dazzles with its complex shape and delicate hues.
A tendency toward mimesis is surely an artifact of the show’s concept: Five jurors including PGC executive director Heather McElwee and Florida-based artist Robert Mickelson sifted 200 works inspired by glass biological models created in the 19th and 20th centuries by Rudolf and Leopold Blaschka.
Yet the show’s most effective pieces transcend representation. John Sharvin’s “English Walnut Seed,” for instance, its translucent, foot-tall shell just parted, turns a common object into a sacral one. The insects in Kumiko Sano’s “Suzumushi Cricket” have impossibly long antenna, and come with text telling how the Japanese cage and feed them in summer for their song; the pedestal-top mirrors remind us of human interaction with nature.
And the best work in Lifeforms feels visionary. “He’e on Cora,” by Kait Rhoads and Jennifer Humphress, suggests an alternate universe by perching a multi-hued octopus on a sphere made of multi-colored glass discs bound together by copper wire. Alicia Comne’s páte de verre “Blooming Sleep, with Turkey Tail” invokes our ultimate oneness with nature with the front half of a hollow human bust, mossy green, patched with mold and sprouting a spectacular fungus. Best of all, there’s Christopher Ahalt’s “White Rhinoceros”: The bulky beast is bound at the feet and floats, balloon-like, from a tether tied to an anvil, surreally evoking on multiple levels the fragility of this very real endangered species.