‘HE & SHE’ dual exhibition dazzles at Rockford Art Museum

The Rockford Art Museum proudly presents “HE & SHE,” a dual exhibition of the works of Bertil Vallien and Ulrica Hydman-Vallien from Sweden. Living in a town whose sole employer is a glass factory in the woods, they have both supported the factory (and thus the town), and have profited from the skills and equipment available to them.

Vallien developed a mold material of sand, clay (and a mystery ingredient) that allows for casting faces into the material, then filling the depression with molten glass. What to do with the heads thus created? Where to take their viewers’ imaginations was the next logical step in his art-making.

Dramatically displayed in a gallery as dark as an underwater cave, this exhibit is a visceral experience. Vallien’s heads morph and change throughout the room, and turn out to be his interpretation of an old, local story presented with the exhibit:

A young girl fell on ice and went into a coma until middle age. When asked what she recalled about her life, she only remembered dreams of “men who visited her.”

With this bit of information, the whole exhibit becomes icy, dream-like and nightmarish in its navy blue environment.

As an artist, these heads are of particular interest to me. This is an instance of a technique and material demanded a storya reason for being. Content followed technique, rather than being the inspiration.

On the other hand, his second signature form seems to have been chosen for its content. Vallien talks passionately about his boats—they are vessels of fantasy, have thin hulls just inches away from catastrophe, have a practical transportation use and are a wonderful abstract shape. These sandcast boats glow eerily, suspended like submarines in this “underwater” grave.

On moving from this womb-like environment into the Kuller Gallery, one is shocked by the PINK wall. I couldn’t help but wonder who didn’t have the courage or audacity to paint the whole room shocking pink? Or, conversely, why would someone saddle a woman, Ulrica Hydman-Vallien, with this color?

Upon entering the room, you find an installation appropriate for Easter—a nest filled with blown glass eggs, each painted with line drawings and each containing an item. Then, you notice it is surrounded by long glass snakes! Hydman-Vallien’s story is as visceral as the lore of the woman in a coma, but it is her story, and it shaped her artistic life. As a 4-year-old, she found a nest of snake eggs. Picking each up, it hatched, and a baby snake dropped to the ground. Needless to say, her mother’s reaction to this event was life-shaping. Her installation is visually interesting, while the snakes are shocking. The uneasy feeling you get from them is tempered by the prettiness of the eggs. Hydman-Vallien’s commercial success makes you think you might like to buy one of these, but they are snake eggs! The dichotomy of the feelings that this installation provokes is its most interesting aspect.

With 13 paintings lining the walls, Hydman-Vallien considers herself a painter. The fact that some of these works are painted on glass objects is a secondary consideration. Her paintings are bright and, outlined in black, bring to mind several male artists who bridged that gap between realism and abstraction. But her topics are not only women and women’s stories; their design probes the inner drive—pain and frustration—that makes us female. One Picasso-like painting is done on a large hunk of green glass. The face fractures as it copes with the unevenly-sheared surfaces of the chunk, while parts of other faces are seen through the dense transparency from the back/front (?) side.

This mysterious exhibition continues at the Rockford Art Museum through July 8. The museum is also sponsoring four more lectures about glass art and two trips—a tour of a working glass studio and a trip into Chicago to explore the use of glass in architecture. Call (815) 968-2787 for more information, or visit rockofrdartmuseum.org.

This is my last review for The Rock River Times. I wish to express my appreciation to Frank Schier for giving me this opportunity, for I truly have learned as much about art and about myself as I hope to have imparted to you, my readers.

Susan Webb Tregay can be reached at susan@tregay.com.

from the April 18-24, 2007, issue

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