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.

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