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Ramon Orlina is one of the few important world sculptors to work exclusively in glass. His recent collaboration in Seattle marks his successful debut in the United States.

By Eva Laird Smith


Glass as art is a formidable experience of the tactile, sensory, and spatial. As an art form the medium takes both literal and figurative connotations. Glass is refractive: glass art becomes the embodiment of light harnessed by the artist's vision into a recognizable shape that pleases the eye, transports the beholder onto pleasurable planes, and at other times, mirrors human emotions.

Ramon Orlina's first solo show in the United States was at Seattle's newly opened Bryan Ohno Gallery. The choice of venue and the selection of artist for the gallery's grand opening is a collaborative venture and a lesson in art, economics, politics, and polemics. Both artmaker and art proponent are seeking the utmost in professional endeavor in the service of glass in art. Orlina, born in 1944 in Manila, and raised in the Philippines, exudes the aura of one who has already transcended the confines of nationality. Through a successful process of forged links, he has become one of the principle spokesmen for contemporary glass sculpture in the Asia-Pacific region. Orlina has built a highly impressive body of work that currently adorns many public sites and corporate institutions throughout Asia. In the world of international glass art, Orlina represents the East, as Dale Chihuly does the west.


While Chihuly's works have a playful buoyancy to them, reminding the viewer of an artist brandishing loose, fluid strokes, Orlina's art, in the contrast, defines his territory not by blowing or molding but by utilizing materials that are normally discarded by factories making sheet glass. Through a rather slow and time-consuming process. Orlina patiently bides his  time, waiting for such industrial waste to be transformed from its molten, fluid state, to solid, hardened chunks. An adept tactician, he confronts this amorphous lump, ready to shape it and be shaped by it.

Through a circuitous route, Orlina has prepared himself for the role into which he now puts all his energies. Academic discipline as an architect-tuned-visual artist has given him the structural knowledge of linear composition and the three-dimensional. His sculptures remind one of thrusting shapes propelled from a cantilevered base; poised for motion, seemingly caught at the very moment of articulation. When the movements in space cleave to a central formation, there is a successful merging of dynamism and serene balance. At other times, using a combination of angular shapes and punched out holes that encircle here and there, Orlina manages to convey intelligible feelings of a human scale. Here is a partial or fragment of human shape, deliciously erotic, or perhaps tenderly reminiscent of mother/child bonding as in his Ning Ning series of breast-shaped sculptural pieces.

Emerald City (1996) is a megalithic aggregate of rectilinear shapes melded into a semblance of skylines and abstracted cityscapes. The titled alludes to Seattle, yet by its very nature presents endless possibilities for interpretation and geographic attribution. Orlina shows marked maturity in handling of subject matter and medium as works such as Nikolai Sanctum (1996), Diversiform (1996), and Focus on Movement (1996) clearly show. His recent work has a certain looseness of conception that characterizes the artist's work at his peak period. There is a certain boldness and energy surrounding these works. In his ease in handling the medium Orlina is a clever manipulator of space. He traps the light and makes his viewer forget that this after all, is merely glass.

Ramon Orlina makes a relatively unwieldy, hard-looking material seem remarkably fluid and sinuous - the qualities naturally present in a brittle substance such as glass are magically transformed. Quality of light is what makes the art of glass one of the most alluring of artistic mediums. Orlina not only harnesses the refractive qualities of light and all its translucency but succeeds in giving new meaning to glass as art, and glass in the service of art.

Ambitious plans are being put into concrete form with the Museum of International Glass, spearheaded by Dale Chihuly in Tacoma, where he grew up. The plan calls for an articulated vision of glass to be housed in a site in the Northwest which would bring together the greatest creators and collection of contemporary glass (art) on the international scene. It would be a perfect approach to art, as envisioned by art practitioners, patrons, and cultural proponents for the new millennium. The excitement that is being generated by all the creations in glass are bringing further distinction to the Northwest.

Ramon Orlina's entry into the art scene in the Pacific-Northwest forges more human connections than is readily discernible. By choosing to present his first solo show in the United States within the Northwest, he pays a backhand compliment to the many positive attributes of the place. He tacitly recognizes the various kinships of common descent, history, and culture. Investing his confidence in talents that transcend boundaries, and affirming his own versatility, Bryan Ohno makes his formal debut in the world of international art. The choice of glass as his gallery's first salvo into the art world brings a lot of meaning into play. Glass is made by the fusion of silica and alkali, mixed into a crucible form which glass achieves a molten state through the element of fire. The resulting work when harnessed by the artist is transformed into objects of beauty. There are many allusions of how art, its practitioners, and propagators have come together in this one moment to bring the message across: the beauty is in the eye of the beholder, transcending imagined boundaries of state and nation.

World Sculpture News Winter 1997 pp. 50-51

Eva Laird Smith, who spent five years in Manila, is at the University of Washington and a research developer for the Tacoma Arts Commission.

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