Fall 2001 Fellow
“The end result is what I aim for — not the perfection of ‘Wow, what an amazing technical feat!’ ” explains Beth Lipman, a fall, 2001 Fellow at the Creative Glass Center of America. Nevertheless, Lipman undeniably wows viewers with the glittering virtuosity of her three-dimensional recreations of 17th and 18th century still life paintings, each incorporating 50 to 100 pieces of glass.
Much of Lipman’s earlier work dealt with abundance and excess and, especially, food, which she values as a “universal known thing.” An early collaboration with a fellow student combined real food like melted sugar and jelly beans with glass images of lobsters, bread loaves, and fish. The paintings which serve as models for Lipman’s current series, “The Still Life Revisited,” are rich with meaning and sensuous surfaces. On one level, still life painting traditionally pays homage to the bounty of nature, God’s gift to humanity. More superficially but inescapably, these paintings recorded the affluent circumstances of the artist or patron who commissioned them: fine linens, crystal and fresh, abundant food, the stuff of life. Countering this show of vanity, many historic still lifes were vanitas paintings, reminders of the brevity of life, which emphasized fleeting material pleasure as a contrast to infinite, ineffable spiritual joy.
Representations of decadence, decay, and waste are reminders of mortality. They include tipped-over wine glasses, insects and the damage caused by them, as well as broken stems and bruises. Split melons in John F. Francis’ Still Life with Fruit, one of the works Lipman is recreating at CGCA, seem almost eviscerated while cascading grapes hang like bloody gobbets. Just as the bloom on a peach fades, so does youth and life. These paintings remind us that though life may be pleasant at the moment and possessions plentiful, “You can’t take it with you.” Yet, paradoxically, although the subjects of the paintings, their owners, and authors are dust today, the represented scene remains vivid and fresh for our contemplation.
At a third remove from the original living fruit, Lipman’s glass versions are even more ambiguous. Glass is solid and almost imperishable, though fragile by definition. Moreover, representing painted objects in clear glass, as she does in her reconstruction of the Francis painting, perversely dissolves solidity in an optically challenging maze of reflections and transparencies. “It’s about the essence of the lusciousness of what’s going on,” Lipman says.
She chose the Francis piece because, John Francis (1808-1886), the most famous American still life painter of his day, lived and worked in Philadelphia where Lipman plans to show this sculpture at the Mangel Gallery in early 2002. For this show, she’s also basing sculptures on works by another important Philadelphia still life artist Raphaelle Peale (1774-1825).
The subject of still life attracted Lipman in part because it has always been considered a secondary or lower form of painting — not as elite, challenging or content-driven as portraiture or “history painting,” for example. Glass and fiber (Lipman’s other primary medium), are often considered second-class materials for fine arts; so she sees them as akin to still life.
Furthermore, Lipman explains, ” I’m a woman working in a material (glass) that 30 years ago a woman wasn’t allowed to touch.” Her observation reminds us that for centuries aspiring women painters were not allowed to work from the nude (to protect their “modesty”), but still life was considered a suitably ladylike subject and one which was not overly challenging.
Nevertheless, Lipman’s glass still lives are challenging and labor intensive. Transcending the pejorative “crafts” label, she presents her work as a consummate complete sculpture. In the hot shop, Lipman works almost expressionistically, knifing a gather of soft solid glass on the end of a metal rod into rugged facets to suggest rather than represent individual, life-size grapes and turning out dozens of peaches in short order. “I’m striving for drawing in glass, not an academic rendition but a translation of objects in my voice and my material.” She is not bound to functional perfection when making the props like baskets, spoons and sugar bowls. Lids lack flanges, baskets lack symmetry and slumped spoons are a little flat. In the finished work, they will not be handled. The carefully calculated arrangements of glass objects are permanently mounted on tables built by woodworker Richard McCoy to Lipman’s specifications.
An admirer of outsider art, Lipman describes herself as a “craft child,” who frequently helped her mother with tole painting and other similar projects. At one time, she disdained the decorative “country” craft aesthetic, but now she respects “the humility of making utilitarian decorative objects” and freely borrows useful techniques. For example, she painted crosshatch tole stokes in fire-on enamels to give a basket in the Francis work a sense of texture.
The most ambitious piece she began at CGCA was a version of Wolfgang Heimbach’s Table Still Life with Maid behind a Window. “This piece will be a summary of how I feel about the viewer interacting with the work,” she explains. The glass fruit in the McCoy’s wooden shadow box will again be clear. In the painting, a maid behind a cracked window eyes the fruit, perhaps covetously. In Lipman’s version, the window will be a mirror reflecting the viewer’s contemplation of her three-dimensional banquet, a frozen ghostly array of glittering overabundance in which food and consumption have political and social implications. Though it has plenty of intellectual content, Lipman’s sculpture is powerfully seductive. When the viewer is literally part of the picture, it is complete and instantly contemporary.