New York

Howard Ben Tré

Charles Cowles Gallery

Howard Ben Tré’s sculptures consistently involve a luminous, cast-glass bottle set within a patinaed metal frame. The two are somehow reconciled yet ingeniously at odds: the bottle is curved, and the curves project on both sides beyond the flat frame. The effect is that of an archaic abstract figure, hieratic and ultrarefined, that stands ceremonially in space as though to mark it with a feminine plenitude—an odd amalgam of the Venus of Willendorf and a Cycladic figure (in fact, the curved bottle and flat frame seems to form an emblem of prelapsarian sexual union). Indeed, Ben Tré calls his monumental sculptures “Bearing Figures” (all works 1996). There are five of them, in addition to Bearing Figure with Undulant Vessel, whose curves give it a particularly rich, dramatic presence and are implicitly as endless and recurrent as ocean waves, and Bearing Figure with Alabastron, whose cast glass has an unusually lush shimmer, at once incandescent and crystalline, as does its patinaed bronze. The theme of abundance, however stylized, is echoed in Pomegranate, a bottle adorned with a band of patinaed metal (silver leaf on steel). Finally, two huge bottles support a sturdy slab in Bottle Bench, an elegant piece of art that seems to await human use.

But Ben Tré’s gorgeous sculptures are also sublime furniture for the mind. The metal frame contains the glass container the way quotation marks contain language, in effect referencing the glass container, that staple of glassmaking, as art and history. It is as though Ben Tré had excavated the bottle from some ancient site—the patina clearly adds an archaeological connotation—and made an exquisite frame to highlight its beauty. Ben Tré’s act of quotation is simultaneously one of consecration, as becomes particularly clear with Bearing Figure with Alabastron, where a disk of sun gold is suspended in the alabastron, waiting to be worshipped.

At least since ancient Egypt, glass has been regarded as one of the most precious, sacred materials and a privileged possession, in part because it was hard to produce. While the vessel is a functional object for storing and preserving food, it is also one of the first art objects. Ben Tré’s glass sculptures recapture the material and aesthetic preciousness and sophistication of the most regal ancient vessels, while extending glassmaking into new material and aesthetic territory. The technical process of their fabrication involves filling molds with molten glass and placing them in annealing ovens for six to ten weeks at a steady temperature of 2,200 degrees. Thus, their fabulous beauty is at once modern and postmodern: they seem to embalm abstract beauty in nostalgic self-quotation, while at the same time reincarnating—rededicating and revitalizing—it as an industrial treasure.

Donald Kuspit