Culture: A Window of Success in Stourbridge; Visual Arts Terry Grimley Reviews Two Major Exhibitions Forming Part of This Year's International Festival of Glass
Byline: Terry Grimley
First launched in 2004, Stourbridge's ever-expanding International Festival of Glass has helped put the town back at the forefront of international glass-making.
With its increasingly busy programme of exhibitions and workshops featuring artists from around the world, it provides an opportunity every other year to take the temperature of developments in the use of this most unexpectedly versatile of artistic media.
At its centre is the British Glass Biennale, a selected exhibition reflecting the best of glassmaking in the UK today. This year's exhibition, the third, includes work by 81 established artists as well as, for the Drst time, a student representation. It is worth noting that the 81 UK-resident artists include three Americans, two Japanese, two Danes and artists from Belgium, South Korea, Germany, Sweden, Slovenia, Norway, Holland and France - reflecting the cosmopolitan reality of the arts in Britain these days.
Added to the fact that glassmaking in recent times has taken off in all sorts of directions unbounded by its nominal identity as a craft, this unsurprisingly makes for a hugely diverse show - perhaps confusingly so for those who haven't been paying attention recently.
Still, straightforward vessel-making still has its adherents, among them Bob Crooks, with a spectacular giant vase with trailed colour decoration.
The main prize, however, was awarded to Tracy Nicholls for her triptych Optica I, II and III, three wall panels in which organic blue forms glow seductively out of a dark nocturnal background. It's beautiful and elegant, but you are unlikely to have any idea of its irony unless you refer to the artist's notes: the images are inspired by cancer cells seen through a microscope.
Will Farmer, chair of the exhibition jury, said: "There's something very mysterious about the piece, which as a triptych has amazing impact. It's strong technically, shows real quality craftsmanship and is beautifully manufactured. We all loved it."
Looking through the biographical notes on the artists, who were invited to fill in a questionnaire, it is striking that those who have chosen to name an influential contemporary artist tend to turn to the field of fine art rather than glass-making, with Anish Kapoor, Rachael Whiteread and Richard Serra each getting more than one nod.
The Norwegian Margareth Troli nominates Damien Hirst, and it's particularly easy to imagine her work crossing over into the fine art arena. Her Prohibited Objects presents a representative selection of items which you would not be welcome to take on to an aircraft, ranging from pairs of scissors to automatic riCes but concentrating on the more extreme end of the range.
These template-like representations, waterjet-cut from grey sheet glass, are suspended in space to form a kind of screen. It has an impressive if somewhat dour presence.
If this piece can be regarded as politically inspired, it is by no means alone. Peter Layton shows three beautifully crafted pieces reflecting on current world tensions, one of them simply a rack of identical clear glass jars, each with the name of a different nationality etched on to it.
More pointedly, another related piece has two similar, but much larger, jars marked "Jew" and "Arab" which despite being empty show traces of what might be blood having overflown from them.
Most elaborate, though, is a large mechanical contraption in which it appears that the blood of various nationalities is being distilled. …