Daniel Cutrone Essay by Robin Rice
Summer 2005 Fellow
Like many artists working in glass today, Dan Cutrone does not confine himself to that material. He uses rubber, steel and silicone and whatever gets the job done. “I am very much about process: putting things together and solving a problem,” Cutrone, a Summer, 2005 Resident Fellow at the Creative Glass Center of America says.
As an interested observer of communication in the arenas of daily life and in his work, he is attentive to the ways objects and materials relate to the context. His work generally incorporates elements of irony and self parody. The putatively functional il servizio sadomasochisto de caféis a graceful coffee service which appears to be normal until one notices that the spout of the coffeepot is inverted or reversed, curving into the interior of the pot so no coffee can be poured.
This sabotage of functional glass engages layers of meaning. Within the social world of shared refreshments and conventional conversation, such a coffee service suggests that sharing or nurturing may be thwarted or an empty symbol. One could imagine the characters in an Oscar Wilde drawing room politely utilizing such a coffee pot without ever noticing that they were not actually receiving any sustenance from the ritual.
Within the world of art, Cutrone’s critique is equally pointed — or perhaps blunt, considering the spoutlessness of the coffee pot. Glass blowers strive for technical mastery and it takes years to acquire. As interest in glass has blossomed internationally, an unprecedentedly large number of exceptionally well-trained glass blowers have come on the scene. Glass blowing is a bit like a sport. These dogged, dexterous young people have mastered a myriad of esoteric Venetian techniques. They aspired to the skill level of renowned artists like Dante Marioni and Lino Tagliapietra and many have achieved it. But they don’t want to be Dante or Lino clones. Learning advanced techniques is like learning to do a quadruple toe loop in figure skating: Wow! But what does one do with it?
Artists study art. Many aspire to be more than highly paid makers of functional objects. Functionality is one measure of mastery: a spout which is not set directly opposite to the handle and, therefore does not pour, is a failure. But a spout which pours perfectly is proof that the maker is no artist; he is merely a really excellent craftsman. It’s a cruel “sadomasochistic” dilemma for today’s younger artists. And the joke is made funnier and crueler by the thought that it’s harder to place a spout inside a pot than outside of one.
Il servizio sadomasochisto de café comments humorously on the nature of functionality and our thoughtless assumption that familiar-looking glassware will not deviate from the norm. It could also be interpreted as a commentary on the non-functionality of functionality in the life of the artist who wants to do and say more. By placing the coffee service on an especially constructed stand, Cutrone underlines both the privileged position of good craft and the removed or elevated position of fine art.
A third reading of this work and others in the series, including a similar tea service, has to do with the notion of “affordance.” Cutrone’s “significant other,” a neurophysiologist, introduced him to this concept. It reflects the gesture implicit in a design. A handle, for example, is recognized as a signifier: something to be gripped and manipulated in a specific way.
Some stroke patients suffer from “alien hand syndrome,” a condition in which the hand is not longer under conscious control but performs actions relevant to the environment (though inappropriate). Most people can recall a parody of this behavior in the Peter Sellers character Dr. Strangelove in the film of the same name. The character’s hand periodically attempted to strangle him. This failure of the inner voice to give appropriate directions is suggested by the viewer’s frustration with the coffee service.
Cutrone, who often works in an installation format, is interested in people as emblems of “what really impacts Western culture” and “the idea of making people into icons.” Both Martha Stewart and the late Pope John Paul are figures who meet his criteria. His personal opinion of the individual subject is not an issue as he clusters symbolic images around each face. With Stewart, a daisy; with the Pope, a Papal key. The image is placed on glass which is later blown into a form. The blown “high class design forms” are also ornamented with kitsch images, like line drawings of ordinary underwear.
“The artist has to drop a breadcrumb for us to follow. I feel very comfortable in paradoxical situations. I’ve always sought a tension between art and graphic art. Commercial art is about consuming—not about reflection. As a maker I want to make work that has a certain openness, a question mark. I don’t want to dumb it down. I don’t want it to be understood in that 30 second time period people relegate to graphic advertising images. To me, the great viewer is the one who participates in that process of search and discovery.”