MILLVILLE, New Jersey — A profusion of beckoning tendrils, undulating leaves, flowers, pearly orbs, and woodland mushrooms spill out of Philadelphia-based glass artist Amber Cowan’s irrepressible, maximalist assemblages in her exhibition Alchemy of Adornment, on view at WheatonArts’ Museum of American Glass. The show delves into themes including femininity and nostalgia with a slate of hypnotic new works.
“My work is based on the rejuvenation and reuse of American pressed glass,” Cowan writes in her artist statement. Over the past 15 years, the artist and educator has exhibited her elaborate sculptures around the world, including solo shows at Heller Gallery in New York City and the Museum of Craft and Design in San Francisco. Her new show is situated in a cultural institute in South Jersey. Known as a hub of glass manufacturing, with more than 200 local glasshouses at its peak, it’s a place particularly well suited to showcase Cowan’s artwork, with its inextricable ties to American glass production.
Treasure hunting is part of Cowan’s process. She collects antique pressed glassware from the heyday of American glass manufacturing (think vases, candlesticks, candy dishes, figurines, and knickknacks) from flea markets and thrift shops, as well as cullet, the gleaming, gemstone-like hunks of the scrap glass that remain after a factory’s production run. Cowan melts the cullet to create new elements, which fill her sculptures and continue to reveal themselves the longer you look, like delightful objects in an “I Spy” book. A four-and-a-half-minute video at the entrance shows the artist at work, pouring lava-like molten glass into a vintage cast-iron mold at WheatonArts’ glass studio, which is a replica of the former T.C. Wheaton Co., a glass factory opened nearby in 1888. In another scene, she twirls blobs of glass that seem as malleable as taffy over a flame, shaping them with shears into a leaf, a flower, a thorny twig.
Installed inside a dozen display cases within a jewel-box gallery off the museum’s faux-Victorian lobby, Alchemy of Adornment simultaneously looks backward and forward in time, pairing Cowan’s works with related pieces of 19th- and 20th-century glassware (vases, goblets, covered dishes, figurines) from the museum’s collection. In freestanding sculptures and altar-like wall pieces that teem with flora and fauna and glossy, seductive surfaces, accumulations of vintage housewares meld with freshly fabricated elements. These monochromatic medleys blend Surrealism with Rococo sensibilities and blur distinctions between new and old, handmade and mass produced. “It’s funny,” the artist told the New York Times, “because even glass blowers get confused about what I make and what I find.”
Many of the colors of deadstock glass in the artist’s distinctive palette will never be seen again in commercial production, since they were made exclusively by long-shuttered factories. Cowan embeds the vanishing manufacturers’ names for the hues (and for figurines) into her titles. The jungly “Bittersweet, River, and Milk” (2023) features a milk-glass candy dish spewing tendrils in a sunny orange called “bittersweet,” a color L.E. Smith Glass Co. produced in the 1960s and ’70s. A trio of pale pink sculptures — “Candelabra in Shell” (2023), “Cornucopia in Shell” (2021), and “Fountain in Shell” (2019) — that seem to ooze and drip reference “shell pink,” a color made by Jeannette Glass Company in 1958 and ’59, during a post-World War II era when pinks surged in popularity, a refreshing contrast to the army greens and browns used in designs for war efforts.
Together, Cowan’s contemporary artworks, and the vintage artifacts displayed alongside them in this show, illuminate a slice of history — the rise and fall of American factory production and ever-changing American tastes and styles — as well as the enduring possibilities of glass.
Alchemy of Adornment continues at the Museum of American Glass (1501 Glasstown Road, Millville, New Jersey) through December 31. The exhibition was curated by Mary Mills.