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ART REVIEW: Glass master

"Elizabeth Lyons Sculpture"


You could say Elizabeth Lyons is Rochester art royalty, being that she's the daughter of artists Nathan and Joan Lyons. But Elizabeth is also a talented, award-winning, collected artist in her own right, and the owner of Elizabeth Lyons Glass as well as More Fire Glass Studios, a 4,000-square-foot glassmaking facility on Rockwood Place. The current exhibit at Nazareth College Art Center Gallery showcases Lyons's versatility, mastery of her medium, and philosophic depth, with a retrospective of her sculptural investigations from 1992 through today.

The first work viewers encounter when they enter the gallery space is "Conference," a grouping of oblong, blown-and-mirrored-glass objects standing upright upon a long, oval, wood table. Some of the objects have fancier bases while some are plain; some are perfectly smooth though distorted, while others reflect the surroundings on bubbled and cracked surfaces. The title helps to personify these bodies, set together in such proximity. Each object soars upward, vaguely rocket-like, each with its own sealed-in, secret trajectory or motivations, while reflecting and distorting the reality of the others around it.

In a provided statement, Lyons describes "Conference" as a response to the anger she felt when the United States attacked Iraq in 2003, and declared "a war sold to us using fear tactics, neatly packaged for our consumption with phrases like 'Shock and Awe,' and 'Operation Iraqi Freedom' ... sexy and shiny and so far removed from reality." The other meaning of the title alludes to the bestowal upon us — or conferring — of empty, trophy-like things, which bear both far greater significance and far different implications than we are led to believe.

"Ritual Vessels" is a series of nine hand-blown, bulbous glass works with symbolic cast bronze and electroform caps. "The powerful traditions that integrate myth and magic were sources of inspiration for this earlier work," Lyons says in a provided statement. Each form is vaguely heart-shaped, but some allude to other organs, with varying hues and surface textures and with sculpted tops that echo each vessel's title and purpose. "Home" has a miniature log cabin crowning the mountainous surface, "Moon" is dark and dusty and capped with stilts holding up a crescent-shaped shelter. The works speak of timeless markers of human life, which, though old to humanity, bear a sense of epic wonder and significance for each new experiencer. Appropriately, "Memory" is etched all over with tiny marks, the cap covered in a bezel-set collection of personal detritus.

A low table holds six works from Lyons's "Built on Their Bones" series, each a redwood house frame showcasing objects such as tiny skeletal or organ systems, ladders, and shells, caught in blocks of clear glass. The bits are meant to recall individuals and civilizations that came before us, say Lyons, upon whose remains we have built our lives. The cases evoke museum displays or simple reliquaries, where remnants of what has passed are denied entropy, caught forever under the vaguely perceiving scrutiny of those who follow.

Hanging on one gallery wall is a strip of wood panel to which six elegant works that make up "Tools for Earth" are anchored, each made of found objects, sculpted and blown glass, wood, steel, and rubber. Though all are rendered virtually useless for actual toil by the fragility of their materials, the grouping ranges from the nearly practical "Shovel with Roots" to the curious "Shovel for Air" and still curiouser "Love Shovel," which is little more than an oversized frosted glass heart at the end of a handle. Another wall bears an array of assorted glass shovel-heads anchored to various smooth, snaking tree branches, which further explore the grace and utility of form and the combination of disparate, sturdy and fragile materials of glass, wood, and steel.

Some of the most arresting works in the show are three in number, where the artist combines cast-resin human arms with man-made tools and weapons we have constructed as extensions of our physical capacity in the world. At once commenting on the destruction implicit in our creations, "Arm Bow" features an arc of wood held taut by a strained-straight double-fisted arm that has a nearly palpable tension-tremor caught within the form. In "Rope Arm" and "Calipers," too, the forms of the familiar tools give way to forearms and our highly evolved hands.

Further back in to the space, a circle of three "Black Birds" perch in a pedestal case, the dark blown glass winged bodies like tightly-gathered shrouds over folded hands, and cast bronze heads reptilian and vigilant. Nearby, "Climbing on Sticks" is a study in sturdy-looking fragility, a work of sand-cast glass branch steps strung on copper and steel cords, reminiscent of a precarious conveyance up to a tree house.

In the very rear, dim alcove of the gallery, one of Lyons's more recent works, "Natural Form Chandelier" hangs, casting light though a sphere of shimmering, silvery, masterfully formed floral elements, including bursting blooms, twisting spears, and swollen buds. This work is an homage to German artist and teacher Karl Blossfeldt, who is known for his close-up photography of plants and other living creatures, which have inspired and instructed Lyons's grasp of form for decades.