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Panache with glass: William Morris’ Crow with Shard.

Glass Menagerie
By David Brickman

William Morris: Myth, Object and the Animal
Berkshire Museum, through Aug. 24

Masters of Contemporary Glass
Berkshire Museum, through Aug. 31

The West Coast sensibility that William Morris brings to the Berkshire Museum will confound some visitors to Myth, Object and the Animal. And that’s a good thing.

A native of Carmel, Calif., and now based in the Seattle area, Morris is an artist who works in only one medium—glass—and who draws his inspiration from nature and ancient history. Not the usual wellsprings of fine art in the postmodern era, especially so close to New York City (and Europe) as Pittsfield, Mass.

Whatever Morris may lack in theoretical underpinnings, he more than makes up for in passion and mastery over his medium. And, judging from this set of five installations, his output is nothing short of prodigious. Just one of the pieces shown, Artifact Panel, incorporates more than 300 separately made objects meticulously mounted and arrayed over an 8-foot-by-33-foot wall.

In terms of craftsmanship, Morris is among the best alive and the most innovative in his field. By blowing, sculpting and decorating this most common of materials, he creates the illusion of many other materials, including pottery, bone, metal and leather. Though many of his pieces have the appearance of cast glass, none of them is cast—everything he makes is created directly from hot glass (adding powdered, colored glass to decorate the surfaces) with crude hand tools right at the furnace.

It’s hot, macho work that requires the help of several full-time assistants, and it has earned Morris representation in museum collections all over the United States and the world. It’s also colorful, lyrical, subtle, obsessive, and yes, confounding.

Drawing on anatomically correct and expressive animal imagery, as well as Egyptian, American Indian and Ice Age stylistic tropes, Morris evokes a world in which actions take on legendary consequences and the primal conflict between man and nature is in full flower.

One such scenario consists of a tremendous row of curving tusks, which make a sort of giant ribcage or boat skeleton in the middle of the darkened gallery. Strewn among the tusk ribs are several human skulls with holes smashed in them, other human bones and a variety of tools, weapons and gourd shapes. Titled Cache, this stylized archeological site plays against the idea of a history museum display to conjure up the sense of a warriors’ graveyard directly out of Norse mythology.

And the 79 tusks, many of them more than 6 feet long, are exquisitely crafted in brilliantly colored and delicately textured layers, using a technique known as “casing”—one of many that Morris adapts in unique ways. It is easy to take for granted because his technique is so good, but remember: The skulls, tools, etc. are also made of nothing but glass.

Other displays that play against the museum artifact stereotype include the lighthearted Artifact Panel; Adorned Burial, which features a fascinating oversize human skeleton; and a set of pots under attack by birds, titled Crow and Raven Installation.

This last piece features stylized figures of the black birds apparently laying waste to ancient Greek and Anasazi pottery, much of it adorned with images of the ravens themselves. As the birds have their way with the precious artifacts, some of them holding broken-off pieces aloft in their beaks, one can’t help marveling at the realism and expressiveness of the craft (again, it’s all glass) and, especially, at the imagination that spawned this bizarre vision.

While Morris apparently can make glass look like anything at all he wants it to, the proliferation of ideas that drives him is the more impressive aspect of his art. The fertility of this wonderful artist’s imagination is only hinted at in the ambitious pieces featured in this traveling exhibition, but it’s a great place to start.

By the way, there is an 8-minute video loop of Morris and assistants at work in his studio that is well worth watching for a bit of insight into the process that transforms a glowing blob of molten glass into the marvels seen here. My compliments to the staff at the Berkshire Museum for providing pairs of headphones with the video, so as not to ruin the atmosphere in the gallery with a distracting repetitive soundtrack.

Accompanying the Morris exhibition in a spacious gallery next door is a fine display of more conventional (but still innovative) glass art called Masters of Contemporary Glass. Featuring 16 highly regarded artists, the show was curated in conjunction with Holsten Galleries in Stockbridge and provides a stimulating overview of some of the many possibilities for this endlessly malleable medium.

Included are colored and engraved vessels by Lisbeth Sterling; prismatically geometric clear glass sculptures by Christopher Ries and Martin Rosol; oversize blown vessels by Sonja Blomdahl, Dante Marioni, Lino Tagliapietra and Stephen Powell; and over-the-top silly combines by Richard Marquis.

Also of interest are painterly abstractions by Dorothy Hafner and extremely elegant, almost minimalist designs by Thomas Patti. But the centerpiece of the show is a trio of basket sets by Dale Chihuly, probably the best-known glass artist alive (and mentor to Morris). As these dazzlingly beautiful vessels attest, Chihuly’s fame is totally deserved—and his craft is clearly second to none.

On the whole, the show is a feast for hungry lovers of glass art. If you’re one, save the airfare to Venice and check it out. And if you’re not, you’ll likely become one after seeing this outstanding work.

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