Saturday, July 21, 2012

Setting an Alluring Table: "Pots with a Purpose" at Ohio Craft Museum

We've looked at a lot of art glass recently, so Starr Review closes out July with feet back on the earth, inspecting some ceramics on display at the Ohio Craft Museum in Columbus. Pots with a Purpose is a show of functional pottery of artistic design; stoneware, earthenware, and majolica that can lift even canned ravioli or sugar substitute to the heights of interest.

Shoko Teruyama,  Marshall, North Carolina
Oval Bowl, Earthenware.
In this crafts show, everything by thirty potters is for sale. The artists can be contacted and are undoubtedly willing to accommodate individuals interested in acquiring their work. Art for every-day use intrigues me, in spite of the constant  debate about whether crafts are "truly art" or "worthy" to be included with oil painting, etc. I don't spend a lot of time worrying about questions like this. The real question is whether or not it engages me, for how deeply and how long. Beyond that, why exclude anything? Craft, like any other art category, comes with some its own particular considerations and many in common with the others. 

Shoko Teruyama, Crow Woman with Pig. Earthenware.
How is it that functional potters can repeat a form or design without losing interest, so that every iteration is fresh and beautiful? We are culturally tied to uniqueness as central to the definition of art; clearly it's not. For artists working in craft, art's definition can include repetition and reengagement, both tied to some idea of consistency, perfectibility, or the challenges of securing a standard that lies in the execution of multiples.

Shoko Teruyama, Large Turtle
Shoko Teruyama's work is unified not by a production aesthetic, though, but by the utility of bringing beauty and intrigue to the ordinary. Her selection of five useful objects—the bowl, above,  a candleholder, plates, and a large vessel for individual floral stems—are free-standing works of art that can also serve curry soup and canapés. Once you've eaten the cucumber sandwiches, you've revealed a dark fantasy, etched on a pastel bed of flowers, in which a crow maiden of beady-eyed determination stamps out a monstrous pig under gathering storm clouds. Wow! Next course, please!

Yet Teruyama's flower holder is the epitome of the pastoral, using the same French provincial decorative motives, abstracted from any drama, with only a birdie on the back of an chintz turtle. The bird sits like a pie bird and would appear to nest privately when a forest of tulips were planted around her. 

Ann Tubbs, Ottawa Lakes, Michigan. Pitcher.
I liked Ann Tubbs' majolica pieces. Majolica uses softer clay, is marked by its glossy white coat and, usually, by casual or whimsical design. Tubbs' lovely drawing both echoes traditional Mediterranean majolica designs that celebrate fruits and herbs while having its own individual, loose style. 

Tubbs carefully matches form and surface decoration. To the graceful, classic shape of the pitcher, she's attached a wavy, free-form sort of handle that allows the whole piece an organic feel. Then the handle, the wide band, and lip appear to have been drizzled or splashed with the colors she used in painting the body; these runny colors highlight the informality of the piece. They add warmth to its invitation for us to pick it up and splash out its cool contents.

Ann Tubbs, 4-Legged Dish. Majolica.
I particularly like the sense that the drawing that underlies the color was executed as easily as it would have been on a sheet of paper with a soft-graphite pencil loosely dangling between her fingers. She did not. She had to work around the curves and swells, in three dimensions, continuing that green vine above the midline either as the vessel was being turned or as she patiently moved herself. In either event, to create conviction of spontaneity would be (as so often it is) challenging. It is definitely value added to know that all the several kinds of lightness Tubbs has achieved with the pitcher are the result of experience and expertise. Her 4-Legged Dish, with its softly pleated handles and focus on the brilliant cherries, manifests the same charm on a smaller level; it's the hallmark of her work. 

Peter Karner, Hesperus, Colorado. Vase and Tureen. Stoneware.
Most remarkable to me, however, is the highly original, declarative work of Peter Karner. His designs are big and geometric. On his website, he explains his complex method for achieving such depth in his surfaces (he uses wax resists, and traps carbon in the glazes, for instance). The works that he brought to this show have an air of Orientalism about them. They are all shot with the coppery glint of some metallic glaze. The shapes he uses are reminiscent of Islamic art—both the scaled shapes in his decorations, and the ways he constructs slightly exotic shapes, like the tureen finial, the pitcher's swell above the midpoint of its height, the splayed-leg stance of a teapot and phenomenal serpentine box.

Peter Karner, Box and Vase
With the box and vase, Karner used similar glazing and decorative techniques. Even though the one shape is sensual in an oriental idiom, the other in its perfectly formed, classic simplicity. Though the two have different patterns, it's easy to overlook the fact, even to think of them as being similar. The colors relate them, but the scale of design and the boldness too relates them. We feel the impact of the designs as much as we see their details.

For that matter, I can imagine taking pleasure in a display of the fluted box between Karner's fish pitcher and  onion-domed casserole. I suspect that any work he produces would sit comfortably with anything else from his hand. The work of an artist with such an individual idiom is bound to demonstrate its coherence, whatever the look of any single item. I recommend the array of designs on his website: it will reinforce this point.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Jules Olitski: For Your Eyes Only

Revelation: Major Paintings by Jules Olitski has traveled to the Toledo Museum of Art from the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art in Kansas City. What a remarkable show it is; I'm patting myself on the back for having gone out of my way to see it. I've known next to nothing about Olitiski, a color field painter during the era of abstract expressionism. What I've known about him is what I've known of many artists—that is, what I've learned through reference materials after hearing his name mentioned in connection with similar (color field) painters— Helen Frankenthaler, or Kenneth Noland; Mark Rothko or Morris Louis. This group is not associated by "look" as much as by their individual preoccupations with linked color and emotion. Each found a way to let color both define and express the content of their work.

Revelation is divided into chronological sections that demonstrate the developing complexity of Olitiski's ideas and canvases. The stain paintings of 1960-'64 are represented by a press image of Purple Golubchik 2. The excellent small gallery guide that accompanies the show explains that "golubchik" (Oliktski was born in Russia) is "not only a kindly form of address, but also a humorous one" often translated as "sweetheart." 

I am offering this image to my readers in the smallest and the largest sizes possible on this blog platform. The point I hope to make is that the scale of the photographs makes little difference in our perception or appreciation of what we call "the artwork." Does the larger size offer information that the smaller version does not?
Jules Olitski, Purple Golubchik, 1962; Magna acrylic on canvas, 132 1/4 x 90 1/4 inches;
Private Collection, 
Image: ©Jules Olitski Estate/Licensed by VAGA, New York; photo: Michael Cullen
Close observation of the larger image will show that the edges of the red field are blurred along the inner and outer edges. Without comparison to the smaller version, would we note this at all? If we decided that it was significant, would we identify it as a flaw or event in the photography, in the printing of the photograph, or something in the painting itself? Asking  these questions at all supposes that we looked with the searching attention we might expend on the examination of a real artwork. Do we expect to learn from the photograph the things we would learn from looking at the painting itself?

But why ask any questions of a tiny photograph of Olitski's painting? The dimensions of Purple Golubchik are in fact slightly over eleven by seven feet—which is small in the painter's oeuvre. The painting is only in the most superficial way like this image. This photograph is to the painting what a sketchbook note would be: It jogs the memory; it in no way represents the features that attract they eye of a viewer in the gallery. The camera, rather than revealing, obscures the essence of the painting.

Jules Olitski, One Time, 1964
acrylic on canvas, 82 x 69 1/4 in.
Olitski Family Estate, Vermont Warehouse Collection,
 Jacksonville, Vermont
In the gallery, we choose our spatial relationship to a work. Olitski's paintings—as the works of the color field artists in general tend to be—are enormous; they are vast; they can loom like clouds bearing divine messages. Purple Golubchik,  from his early stain paintings, was made by applying acrylic paint directly to unprimed canvas so that the color bled directly into the raw fabric instead of sitting on top of it (as it would have had the canvas been covered with gesso or otherwise primed). 

This yielding of management over the details of application meant loss of control of both edges and evenness of color absorption. Where we see in the photograph bold, uniform areas of red, green, and blue, we see in the live painting colored areas covered much less consistently. Some portions have received less pigment, others an extra swipe, so there is variety where the photo shows only monolithic sameness. And, as there is tension about the way the blue circle pushily relates to the exterior lines of the canvas, the bleeding of color at edges creates anxiety about the interrelation of the forms contained within the circle: Will they eventually touch? Is this about separation, or about creeping tendency to blend? Will the forms metamorphose, or lose their integrity if they continue to expand? Will their edges fade away and the color run out?

In the presence of Purple Golubchik, we find our interest occupied by a variety of stories, and they occupy us in different degrees depending on our proximity to or distance from the painting. We may appreciate it from across the room as a colossal drama of form and color; but from a foot away, any two-by-two-foot swathe is a microcosm of small, quiet actions. As pictured, it's easy to understand the whole as a draft for a Marimekko fabric print. In order to experience its life with the subtlety it actually possesses, you simply have to be in front of it. There is no compromise for the viewer's presence.

Photography can do a lot of things, but it doesn't convey scale without comparison. And even were there to be a human pictured beside an Olitski painting, that would do nothing to mitigate the inevitable massing of colors that the eye can and does isolate in person. Painters paint for eyes, not cameras. Olitski's stain paintings (Purple Golubchik, One Time) defy reproduction. To the extent that we experience them through photographic condensations, there is, simply, less and less to see. All the telling skips, pauses, and blanks that are central presences get eliminated in the compacting process.

Olitski's second series of  work is spray paintings from 1965 through 1970. Again, a photograph offers a certain kind of information, but little of what the painting offers.
Patutsky in Paradise, 1966; acrylic on canvas, 115 x 161 inches; Collection of Art Gallery of Ontario, Purchase, 1982;
Image: ©Jules Olitski Estate/Licensed by VAGA, New York
Patutsky in Paradise (the name is a childhood term of endearment for the painter) hangs in a way that makes a heavenly prospect conceivable. It is conceivable because the canvas, at nine-and-a-half-feet high and thirteen-and-a-half feet wide, allows the viewer to imagine paradise not simply as a blur of idea, but as a prospect with details. The wall of radiance that shimmers in this photographic image feels literally heavenly in person when the average-sized viewer stands before it in the gallery. The colors do convey—or they draw out a preexisting state of—exaltation. They are light (pastel as opposed to shaded) and they glow with light. But they are not light in the sense of weightless. 

Jules Olitski, Exact Origins, 1966
acrylic on canvas, 110 x 85 in., spray painted
Courtesy of Leslie Feely Fine Art, New York
Patutsky's canvas is heavy with layer upon layer of sprayed paint. Standing next to the painting itself, one does not at all experience a wall of pure color, but rather a minutely dappled surface upon which the evidence of several carefully integrated sprays of color lie discrete and plain—almost as if they could be neatly disassembled for a color separation. The surface is not even but densely textured, like beach sand after a rainstorm, heavy and wet in look. So, stand across the room, and Patutsky in Paradise is an ethereal cloud of colors rising out of its framing rainbow beaker (which is failing, and emitting cloudlets on the left side). But come close, and the same painting has impressive weight and depth. In fact it's hard to imagine the whole thing when you're close enough that you can only see a fragment: How could something with all this mass be the same work you just saw floating, from across the room?

From Olitski's final era of work, when he was in his late seventies, came the series called, "With Love and Disregard." Not enough can be said about the beauty, richness, and the impact that these paintings have on the viewer. They are not as monumental in size as the spray paintings, but, then, the surfaces do well to contain the seething motion, the multiple layers of paint that vie for ascendency, the contrast of super-saturated color with cosmically-black backgrounds. 
Jules Olitski, With Love and Disregard: Rapture, 2002; acrylic on canvas, 68 x 92 inches; Private Collection
 Image: ©Jules Olitski Estate/Licensed by VAGA, New York; photo: Michael Cullen
Rapture, painted when Olitski was 78, is almost unnervingly intense: it feels ecstatic with age, with all the tumult, beauty, and dread the concept of rapture holds. Once more, he presents us with a drama of form and formlessness, one that we intuitively grasp and interpret.The senses of formation, of efflorescence and climax are powerful, driven by shapes and colors. And again, what we cannot see in this photograph powers the painting from even more deeply, beneath the surface motion and tension. The great cracks we see in the black around the fiery form and again in the white are the grossest manifestations of cracks that break the crusty surface all over the painting, giving way to roiling wells of color. These passages of various sizes compare to the fine patterns on marbled paper, to the pocked bubbling of asphalt, or the crazed crust of a creek bed in drought. Unless a dedicated observer with a good camera were allowed to persist, they remain invisible to all but the viewer who stands in the painting's considerable force field.

Art writing—certainly as I practice it—depends on photography. One reason I took to blogging after writing for print was that I could avail myself of as many images as I could get my hands on. If I wish to discuss visual art, images are the secondary documents that help me make my case. They can demonstrate what I'm talking about. Short of a field trip, photos are the best I can do to show, share, and start a conversation.

Most of the time, I act as if this writing from photographs posed me none of the problems it does. But seeing Olitski's moving Revelations show puts me achingly in mind of what readers surely take for granted in my (or in anyone's) art reviews: that photos represent a work by showing what there is to see. 

But photographs never show the art that you examine with your own two eyes. They never show any artworks that I write about however warmly. At best, photos deliver significant information and lifelike color. At worst, they are these pictures of Olitski's paintings, so different in scale that they communicate almost nothing about the artist's practice. These high-quality shots  represent only single features of Olitski's divinely complex work. Because of these, we can identify paintings he made, but our awareness of his work is reduced to that first glance, the kind that will allow us to make a value judgment or a decision on whether or not to visit a show of his work. It gives us the Classics Comics Jules Olitski. But color field work is, I emphasize, unusually problematic.
It's not the fault of photography that its products aren't truthful. And we should praise any particular photographer who strives anyway to document art accurately. It is very demanding work. When I post my own photos on this blog, it is inevitably with a heavy heart: I see vividly in my head the details that defied my camera from every angle and lighting. I have to discard "satisfying" images. If I look at an image and can't see what's missing, then I've forgotten why I needed that shot in the first place.

The history of art is founded on our acquaintance with the ghosts of great works. When we see the originals in collections, we may think that the artists blundered or falsified by adding all sorts of things that we never saw in Janson's History of Art. Whose authority is this, after all? Art's already been fixed forever in the photographs that we know from text books and slide collections.

I offer no solution, only a reminder of how profoundly proximate art images are. We need them nevertheless.

I am deeply grateful to the providers of images when I review shows that have, like Revelations, been assembled from a variety of public and private collections. All the contributors have their own parameters controlling the taking and the distribution of photographs of their work. The show organizers may release to the press only what crosses no boundaries in the whole field of permissions and restrictions. The images I post are the results of much work, courtesy, and generosity.

There are always more and better photographs that I want to use in my reviews.

But the most exquisitely photographed details of any work can never reveal what's important.  What's important is and will always be the contact between an artwork and a particular viewer's eyes; that's where there's life because that's where there's an experience. No camera will ever focus like a viewer's vision, because that sort of sight is an experience, and that comes, like the artists's, from inside.

All photographs are courtesy of the Toledo Museum of Art.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

"Color Ignited: Glass 1962-2012" at the Toledo Museum of Art

The Toledo Workshops of 1962, led by Harvey Littleton, are credited with initiating the American art glass movement. Still dizzy with wonder from a show of Lino Tagliapietra's work, I couldn't then miss Color Ignited: Glass 1962-2012 at the Toledo Museum of Art, a show mounted in celebration of the pioneering work encouraged by then-Director Otto Wittmann fifty years ago. Venetians were plying centuries-old traditions of high art in their hot shops. Ohio had a long history of glass manufactories: Fostoria, Anchor-Hocking, with Libbey and Owens Corning—as well as Johns Manville fiber glass—in Toledo itself. But as recently as in 1960,  American art glass didn't exist. We must thank curators Jutta-Annette Page and Peter Morrin for putting together a show that's takes us back and speeds us forward.
Glass Workshop, 7 pieces
Courtesy of Toledo Museum of Art, William Shelley. 
Littleton, a ceramic artist, was a native of Corning, New York and wanted to use glass as he used clay, as an artistic material. He organized his first workshop in Toledo to be full of collaborators from many academic institutions and from industry. The workshops produced Marvin Lipofsky who established a glass program at Berkeley, and Dale Chihuly who started a glass program at Rhode Island School of Design, founded the famous Pilchuk School of Glass in Washington state, and has popularized art glass nationally. Into these nascent programs Tagliapietra and a few other Muranese artists were invited as guests, and their vast knowledge of traditions and techniques was like rocket boosters added to the eagerness of artists fresh to the medium. The photograph above shows where the Littleton cadre was starting.

Color Ignited doesn't dwell on the backstory, however, but celebrates the ebullience, the sophistication, and the invention that have sprung so quickly from the Workshops. And while the reflections of the world's great glass cultures are seen throughout the show (not only Muranese, but Scandinavian and Czech), there is ingenuity, technology, humor, and characteristic motives that mark this work as American.

Tom McGlauchlin (American, 1934–2011), “Dessin de Bulle” Vase. 
Glass, blown, cased, flashed, cut, 1978. H. 8 7/8 in. (22.5 cm).
 Toledo Museum of Art. Museum Purchase
 and Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Howard Franklin, 1979.4.
 Photo: Richard Goodbody ©1978 Tom McGlauchlin
Between 1962's beginnings and the perfection of form in this 1979 bottle (right) there would seem to be generations of advancement, especially in the elegantly layered, complex distribution of colors, running from almost pastel blue through raspberry red. The form is classic simplicity, but the internal patterns carry us away. 

Robert Fritz (American, 1920–1986), Vase Form.

 Light olive green glass, blown, applied prunts, 1966.
 H. 7 7/8 in. (20 cm). Toledo Museum of Art.
 Museum Purchase Award, Toledo Glass National, 1966.135.
 Photo: Richard Goodbody ©1966 Robert C. Fritz
Note, though, that the 1966 piece that won the Museum's purchase award in the Toledo Glass National, four years after the seminal workshop, is interesting for form alone: color is the color of the material, and the interest lies in the techniques of blowing and tool-shaping.

The artists' use of color in this show comes unleashed, arresting, wild, or raw. But its use is always one more aspect of a piece that's already stunning for its form, idea, or craftsmanship. Color is the sound of the starter's gun. Toots Zynsky's bowl, City Lights, for instance, is a heart-stopper. It is made of super-tiny glass threads that are fused together so that they do

Toots Zynsky (American, born 1951), City Lights.
Filet de verre (glass threads), fused 
and thermoformed, 1993.
6 3/4 x 13 x 9 in. (17.1 x 33 x 22.9 cm). Private collection, Hoffman-Hall.
Photo: Toots Zynsky ©1993 Toots Zynsky 
not melt into one smooth, "glassy" surface, but remain individually visible, each perfectly lined up between its neighbors, presenting to the fingers an inviting, lightly ridged surface. Both hand and eye are drawn irresistibly to a bowl that will fill up with our admiration.

Dan Dailey, Pistachio Lamp. Illuminated Sculpture, 1972.
 Hand blown glass. Gold plated brass.
14”H x 10”W x 10”D ©2011 Dan Dailey
Dan Dailey's Pistachio Lamp strikes me equally as a thing of beauty and a thing of hilarity. When I saw it, the bulb on top was illuminated and shone a very hot red. Dailey uses "opal glass," which was popular in the 1930s, called Vitroline. One of the delights of this lamp is that  when it's turned on, the  light is self-contained, and the red bulb, rather than casting light, glows like a hammered thumb in a  L'il Abner cartoon
Paul Seide (American, born 1949), Radio Light. 
Glass, blown; mercury and argon gas, 1985. 
H. 16 1/2 in. (41.9 cm); W. 16 3/4 in. (42.5 cm). Toledo Museum of Art. 
Gift of Dorothy and George Saxe, 1991.135. 
Photo: Richard Goodbody ©1985 Paul Seide 

An internal light source intensifies the colors of Paul Seide's Radio Lamp too. Seide's lamp is powered by a specially-designed radio transmitter. The glass loops are filled with mercury and argon gas that emit light when excited by radio waves. This, like Dailey's work, takes received glass traditions, handles them with reverence, and introduces them to the technological present. It's the American way.

Glass in a glass box—in a mirrored box, really. With LED lights, and a video monitor. Twilight Powered by Electricity Makes for a Brilliant New Horizon was among several in the show that are conceptual works made with glass. For Andrew Erdos, glass and its properties illustrate his thoughts about reflection, transparency, lightness and darkness, color, invisibility, form and shadow. Yet it felt to me that glass shaped his ideas, which were the real focus of the piece. It was a mixed media work, concepts having the same weight and presence as the physical materials. But glass could never have served such  myriad, complex purposes only twenty years before Erdos made this.

Andrew Erdos (American, born 1985), Twilight Powered by Electricity Makes for a Brilliant New Horizon.

 Mouth-blown glass, sterling silver, video monitor, LED lights, 2012. 62 x 61 x 45 in. (157.4 x 154.9 x 114.3 cm).
 Image courtesy of Claire Oliver Gallery, New York ©2012 Andrew Erdos 

Deborah Horrell (American, born 1953), Infolding II. 
Pâte-de-verre, 2008.
 14 ¾ x 14 ½ x 8 ¾ in. (37.4 x 36.8 x 22.2 cm). 
Collection of Margy and Scott Trumbull. 
Photo: Richard Goodbody. ©2008 Deborah Horrell 
For my own part, my favorites were the pieces in which form, color, concept, and technique were equally balanced and compelling. This probably boils down to taste, spoken in haughty words! But the most astonishing and beautiful to me was a work by Deborah Horrell called Infolding II.  Horrell's technique is called pate de verre ("glass paste"), which is a fusion of crushed glass with coloring agents.  A gallery note said that this process was known in ancient Egypt. It further noted that it is very difficult to make items of any size this way, since pate de verre  is not strong. Horrell's work, at over fourteen inches high and long, is extraordinarily large for this technique.

The vessel has a matte finish, which makes it seem like a ceramic object at first glance. Its color, though, and its ombre gradation from the yellow rim to the melon-green bottom of the cup suggests clear glass—it's like we are looking through the container to the layers of a chilled parfait of tropical ingredients. The rim of the large form does not disguise the crushed glass in the processes, for it is crumbly looking. The colors, though, in combination with the cup shape suggest something icy; the finely broken glass reads like ice crystals that will melt on the tongue.

I also loved BlueRubySpray by Harvey Littleton. This work is dated 1990, almost thirty years after the ceramist assembled friends and colleagues at the Toledo Museum of Art to figure out how artists could work with glass outside of factory settings. Here Littleton has produced colored veins encased in clear glass, which effectively magnifies them. Wherever the viewer stands to look at the piece, she or he sees all the possible angles of the ribbons, displaying more or less of the stripes of color, each revealed in a different way by its particular position. 
The complexity is all in and of the glass and its properties. It changes with the environmental light and the viewer's movements. It also has that other thing I'll admit that I always love in glass: It's shiny! It gleams!

Harvey Littleton (American, born 1922), Blue/Ruby Spray from the Crown Series. 

Colorless and colored barium potash glass, blown, with multiple cased overlays, 1990.
 Largest of the pieces: 17 x 3 7/8 x 13 5/8 in. (43.1 x 9.8 x 34.7 cm). 
Toledo Museum of Art. Partial gift of Ross E. Lucke in memory of Betty S. Lucke, 
by exchange, and partial purchase with funds from the Libbey Endowment, 
Gift of Edward Drummond Libbey, 1992.41A-L. Photo: Tim Thayer ©1990 Harvey K. Littleton 

All photographs in this article are courtesy of the Toledo Museum of Art.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Glass Maestro Lino Tagliapietra: The Rainbow Island

Lino Tagliapietra, Venice, detail.
Through the end of August—for absolutely free—anyone can visit the Hawk Galleries at the corner of Main and 4th Streets in Columbus, Ohio and spend as long as they like contemplating unearthly beauty among nearly fifty large works by glass master Lino Tagliapietra. In fact, the gallery sitter I spoke with when I had the enormous space all to myself on a recent Sunday, rued the fact that few people take advantage of this opportunity. "We understand that people aren't coming in to purchase. Who can afford this?" The museum-quality work sells for six figures, but that's not the point. A visit to this Tagliapietra show, L'isola dell'Arcobaleno/ The Rainbow Island, is perfectly described by its title: It's a simple retreat from everything but light, color, rhythm, grace, and joy.

Tagliapietra grew up on the glass-maker's island of Murano, in Venice. He became a glass apprentice at age eleven and a maestro by twenty-one. His mastery of historical techniques of Venetian glassblowing is important not only for his own exquisite and innovative oeuvre, but because he has shared his knowledge so far and wide. Through his innumerable collaborations and teaching, he is almost literally responsible for the burgeoning of art glass worldwide in the late twentieth century. 

Lino Tagliapietra, Poesia, detail
As at the Sherrie Gallerie's show of Murano glass blower Davide Salvadore's work in March, 2012, The Rainbow Island offers the viewer a filmed overview of the artist's life and his process in the studio. We can watch as he blows and shapes some of the very works on view in the next room. There are several YouTube videos that show the master at work with his team, but none are as generous as this film, shot at the Pilchuck Glass School in Washington state. The studio (the "hot shop" with furnaces and torches) is arranged like a teaching theater, as in a medical school. When he and his team complete a piece, the workers and small audience applaud, and we film viewers feel the dissipation of the anxiety we've felt build during the long process. Amazingly, though, through it all, Tagliapietra not only appears relaxed, but he smiles and whistles through the sweat, concentration, and heavy lifting. The hot shop is his sunshine and fresh air, and he is a boy on a lark, at freedom to do as he likes. His happiness clearly suffuses everyone working with him.

Fuji, blown glass, 19 1/4" h x 18 3/4" w x 11 1/2" d
Lino Tagliapietro, Bahia, blown glass
26"h x 10" w x 6-3/4" d
But the show's the thing, to which the video is but an introduction that may intensify appreciation of The Rainbow Island. The work demonstrates such a breadth of form and imagination that it seems to have sprung from the fancy of a benign Hydra.

Tagliapietra uses glass blowing as if he were a scientist exploring the natures of mass and motion, density and lift. If we compare Fuji with Bahia, the one is like a seaweed balloon and the other like a dense, mythic gem, excised from obdurate stone. We can imagine back to the molten state of each form; we see that each has undergone considerable surface carving ("cold work"), but they tell different stories and put us in different moods.

Venice (22 1/4" h x 11 3/4 w  x 3/4" d) foreground, and
Fenice (13" h x 47" w x 4 3/4" d) background
Venice (detail above) and Fenice, the one flat and the other sinuous, couldn't have more dissimilar forms. Yet, put together with the two vessels above we see how "mass" and "density," in Tagliapietra's world, have very little to do with weight. His pieces are all large, and even the ones with the greatest density like Bahia or Venice have spectacular lift. 

Setting aside the plaques, Tagliapietra's works either have as little contact with the ground as possible; or they are filled with lines and patterns so dynamic that they make us chase storms of motion within the glass-cased universe of the artwork. Even the most stable open forms, like cylinders, dance with motion. In the Osaka vase, huge "gestures" run up and around the vessel as if they were painted in momentary bursts of energy. It's as if the size and shape—the mass—is meant to anchor forceful currents that blow through the piece.  

Osaka, blown glass, 22 1/2" h x 11 3/4" w
In several works, Tagliapietra energizes forms with this theatrical, linear gesture. In Poesia,  the base of which I've pictured above, he shoots lines of white, brown, and caramel through clear glass. Of course we know that they are suspended—glass in glass—but it is difficult not to see them anyway as lines in motion, or as the contrails of magnificently agile flight. Poesia, too, is a cylinder, but one experiences the movement itself, not the object, which contains and displays the movement, allowing us to see what would otherwise remain invisible.  

Poesia, detail, looking through the vessel

If it's not to make too fine a distinction, there are other works in which I feel that Tagliapietra has not so much contained a whirlwind in a stable form, but has challenged our perception of motion—either that or it has suspended his viewer in slowed-down "glassblower time." It takes him hours to produce these durable illusions of dynamic spontaneity; he works against probability to capture the essence of motion before his medium sets forever. Like that, he seems able to stay the moment of our viewing, creating the sense of an "extended blink."

Fuji, detail
In this close-up detail from Fuji, above, the thousands of tiny blue canes incorporated into the vessel are evident. They are suspended in the clearest glass, which is unmarred by a single bubble. I experience this differently than I do the the pieces with extended lines: I feel like I am seeing not sea flora in motion, but arrested from motion. The illusion is that I am suspended in a scene where time and motion are stopped to permit me an infinitely long view of otherworldly beauty. As if one gulp of breath will allow me to be under the coral sea forever. "Look as long as you like. Nature will resume when you feel the need to move on."

Lino Tagliapietra, Venice, blown glass. Approx. 11" h x 26" w.
Something like this happens in this almost dizzying plaque, another entitledVenice. Looking at Fuji with its millions of tiny, posed filaments, the eye has every opportunity to slide back and forth between "seeing" movement and "knowing" the scene is static. In this Venice, the area of doubt is focus: Should I rub my eyes back into sharpness, or am I seeing what the artist made? Because we are asking the question, Tagliapietra has stopped us, the viewers, in mid-blink as we evaluate the trustworthiness of our own perception. Yet again, though, it's not our vision, but the thing itself that's blurry. What focus it has, the maestro has given with the interior spirals of orange as well as by the striations that flow across what is, essentially, the landscape.

Plaques tempt us to use the term "two-dimensional" in comparison with Tagliapietra's other work, but of course these are not. In fact, Tagliapietra manages to multiply dimensions in all of his work. The device of using exterior forms to "contain" the energy created by linear elements combines the powers of two and three dimensional works into something beyond both. In this piece, the "flatness" is composed, as in any other piece, of many repetitions of blowing, firing, folding and refinement. Even in these small photographs one can begin to see how deeply into the glass it's possible to look; we know that anything beneath the surface is embedded in the long history of the work's relationship with breath, fire, and tools. The lines (the ones that appear white here because of reflected light) are not produced by deep history, though, but are evidence of the final work because they are incised into the surface. This carving is accomplished once the piece has completely cooled and hardened. The plaque, then, appears both barely focused and sharply chiseled. Its surface can be argued to lay at different levels, depending on where you wish to start, before or after carving. And though we see the work blurred, as though in mid-blink, we are yet mindful of sharp definition made by the precise raking across its surface.

Endeavor, detail
In many works Tagliapietra uses cold work to enhance the colors and designs beneath the surface. Sometimes this enhancement works as prisms do, to sharpen and define the patterns blown into the glass. His Endeavor series takes the form of long, narrow "boats," like racing shells. In a black and white example, the cutting provides the two-colored pattern with a literal skeleton that we can see by looking through and across the shell itself. 

Fenice, detail
Carving extends Tagliapietra's already extraordinary palettes as well. Fenice, seen undulating in the background of a photograph above, is a serpent of bold, saturated, primary colors. Its surface is cut in lozenges reminiscent of the scales of a snake. As one moves around the form, catching it in different light, the many small surfaces mediate the hot colors into a much broader and subtler palette. The work is transformed by proximity. Different distances bestow different personalities upon it.

Bahia, detail
Finally, in the carving on Bahia (see above), Tagliapietra uses a combination of patterns covering the entire surface of this large piece to do several wonderful things. It increases the amount of reflected light, enhancing the sense that the yellow-gold color is really an internal light source. The cuts laid over the internal movement blurs edges between colors and softens all transitions below the surface, softening the whole form and lending it a glow that reads as a gentle aura. The carving both mirrors and magnifies the internal beauty of the precious object.

The Rainbow Island is an incomparable show. Each of Tagliapietra's works is a triumph of industry, art, imagination, and love. To see these is to breathe the freshest air under the bluest sky, and he made them for our eyes. Dreams come true.

All photographs in this post were taken by the author.