Contemporary artist Mikel Glass specializes in realist painting, but his subjects are not as classical as his style.
"I like to paint the things that nobody wants," says Glass from his studio in the Hell's Kitchen neighborhood of Manhattan.
Throughout his career, the 46-year-old Glass has represented the "outcasts and discards of society," a sobering set of muses he finds beautiful and honest. They provide the basis for his solo exhibition at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center. Mikel Glass: The Discarded, a three-tiered show, features sculpture, painting and a site-specific installation, and opens this week.
Glass' sculptures don't immediately register as high art. The 12 works appear to be garbage, in fact: cardboard boxes, plastic bags. But these pieces aren't made of paper or plastic at all. They're made of wood.
Glass created all the pieces from scratch, building the work and painting it to appear startlingly realistic. A study only inches from the piece hardly betrays its true materials. It's not until Blake Milteer, curator of 19th-21st century American art at the FAC, exposes the wooden underbelly of a dirty, replica FedEx box that illusion lifts.
Glass admires the virtues of craftsmanship by itself, yet opted to give the works another layer by creating fictional back-stories, involving scandal or celebrity, for each one. One item was supposedly in the middle of a dispute between a famous Hollywood actor/director and his girlfriend, for instance.
"A baseball costs five dollars," Glass says, "but Mark McGwire's 70th home run baseball costs $3 million. We assign arbitrary values to these things."
The work also needles the art world itself, says Milteer.
"In the art world, the art market, what often happens is that it's collectors, critics, curators who are, in many cases, dictating taste ... determining what's important," he says. "And of course, part of how we determine what is important is market-based, if not in its origin then in its ultimate result."
The inherent irony of Glass' criticisms for society's mislaid values lies in the painstaking creation of his artwork. After hundreds of hours, an individual piece transforms, ostensibly, into trash.
The Discarded presents much to grasp, but nothing audiences can't handle, says Milteer.
"There's art that's going to be immediately accessible, and there's art that's going to take some more effort," he says. "The important part for us as a museum is actually giving you the tools to dig in."
Beyond the sculptures, Glass displays 23 realist paintings and the installation, which features objects depicted in the paintings. His impressive Colorado debut the first solo exhibition for a living artist at the FAC under the direction of Milteer and fellow curator Tariana Navas-Nieves presents many layers of personal complexity. Glass, however, refers back to a soulful and basic construct when ascribing meaning to his work.
"The truth of it is," he says, "it's the little things and the simple life that really hold the most humanity."