A Different Dimension

Brent Kee Young's artistry is reflected in his intricate glass forms.

Spotting a matrix in the world around you is a little like eating a potato chip: It’s hard to stop at just one.

The root ball of a plant … twisted metal rods in a pile of rubble … brain coral … the fibrous skeleton of a dried-out cactus. Once Brent Kee Young starts thinking about natural and man-made patterns, he sees them everywhere. In fact, the intricate webs and lattices are the inspiration for the eminent Cleveland Heights glass artist’s Matrix Series. Fusing thin glass rods with architectural precision, Young builds complex, radiant forms that illuminate — literally — everything from geometric shapes to a range of familiar objects that include bowls and baskets.

Several pieces from the Matrix Series are on view in “New Artifacts” at the Akron Art Museum through April 7. The exhibition features works by Young and Sungsoo Kim, a Kent-based glass artist, and celebrates the 50th anniversary of the studio glass movement — born at the Toledo Museum of Art — that gave the world a taste of the possibilities of glassmaking beyond factory mass-production.

Young, a professor in and chairman of the glass department at the Cleveland Institute of Art,  employs flame-working techniques to create his luminous forms.

“Flame-working is a very old form of glass manipulation,” says Akron Art Museum curatorial assistant Danielle Meeker. “Brent’s innovation is to use flame-working to build. He has to plan out the structures so he can make these tiny rods support a [piece] that stretches to 16 feet long.”

Young begins with a clear, 3- to 5-millimeter-thick glass rod in one hand and a small torch in the other. Although the flame is little, it’s mighty, combining enough propane and oxygen to generate the 3,000-to-4,000-degree temperatures necessary to transform the glass from rigid to workable. There is no grace period. As soon as the torch is moved away, the glass hardens again.

“If you heat it up too much, it’ll get runny and out of control. If you don’t heat it up enough, it doesn’t move,” Young explains. “So you’re kind of responding to what the material gives you.”

The rods are borosilicate glass — better known as the material used in Pyrex products. The material is durable and holds up to extreme temperatures. It’s distinct from the less-forgiving soda-lime glass used in blown-glass art and everything from barware to windows. The borosilicate also is a good insulator.

“I can hold a 4-millimeter rod three inches away from the tip and the tip is fluid with the torch,” Young marvels. “It’s pretty cool.”

Each piece starts with the construction of a glass framework to guide and support it. Young likens the process to building a boat: The boatwright lays out the ribs and covers them with planks to form the hull. In Young’s case, once the outside skin of the object is self-supporting, he removes the “ribs” and builds the interior matrix.

“The analogy I use is it’s like welding in the middle of the air, in three-dimensional space,” he says.

The artist then manipulates and joins the clear rods to create imaginative forms. The same way a winter ice storm transforms a tree or park bench into something shimmering and novel, Young’s glass interpretations of chairs, vases, ladders and boats puts everyday shapes in a new light.

At more than 9 feet long, the largest work in the “New Artifacts” show is “Cubism, Contiguous Lineage” (2012). Requiring almost 18 months to complete, it’s comprised of eight distinct geometric shapes. Each is separate, yet connected by identical openings that together form a tunnel. Space and line are as much components of the work as the glass itself.

There’s a sense of playfulness in much of Young’s work. “Fertile Ground ... ” (2009) presents a cone leaning one way, cantilevered into a parallelogram tilted in the opposite direction. It’s actually quite sturdy, but, much like a house of cards, gives the illusion of precarious balance. The piece speaks to the dichotomies of glass. Common, yet exquisite. Fragile, yet strong. Born in fire, but sparkling like ice. At once ethereal and sharply defined. That’s the fertile ground Young likes to plant his ideas in.

Objects in the Matrix Series also showcase the artist’s feats of engineering. Born in California, Young studied engineering in junior college, later obtaining Bachelor of Arts and Master of Fine Arts degrees in glass and ceramics. In 1973, he came to the Cleveland Institute of Art.

Over the years, Young, 66, has received a litany of honors that include the 1987 Cleveland Arts Prize for Visual Arts. His work resides in the permanent collections of prominent museums across the country — including the Smithsonian — and has been the subject of solo exhibitions as far away as Tokyo. Up next: a show at Michigan’s Habatat Galleries in April.

It’s easy to see why glass holds a special place in the artist’s repertoire. Young explains that it’s one of the few materials that enjoys the privilege of carrying light, not just reflecting it.

“When I’m defining the forms, what you’re seeing is how the light is caught in the rod and reflected — kind of internalized, then reflected out of the piece,” Young says. “You see the form, but you see little glints of light.”

This touch of dazzle is part of the fascination that makes glass so popular with museumgoers — and what drives pioneers like Young to put a torch to its boundaries and take this familiar material to undiscovered places.

“It’s pretty magical,” he says.

When You Go
“New Artifacts,” glass by Brent Kee Young and Sungsoo Kim
Akron Art Museum
One South High, Akron 44308
330/376-9185. akronartmuseum.org
Hours: Wed. –Sun 11 a.m.–5 p.m., Thur. 11 a.m.–9 p.m.
Admission: Adults $7, students and seniors $5, children under 17 free

For more about Brent Kee Young, visit brentkeeyoung.com.