Emrys Berkower Essay by Robin Rice

Emrys Berkower Essay by Robin Rice

Emrys Berkower
Summer 2005 Fellow

It’s tempting if facetious to describe Summer 2005 Resident Fellow of the Creative Glass Center of America, Emrys Berkower as the exemplar of “good taste” in glass. His glass is certainly lovely to look at and it looks even better with food on it. Berkower successfully combines his appreciation of great food and with his love of glass in performance works. At the Corning Museum of Glass, Berkower’s 2300 Degrees: Cooking with Hot Glass Italian Style (2004) produced a multi-course meal in which food was cooked on hot glass. He has also cooked on hot glass and served the food on the identical designs which have been annealed, delighting and dazzling viewers with a metonymic cycle of complete functionality.

At thirty-something, Berkower has accomplished more than many artists do in a lifetime—in terms of actual technical mastery and in terms of recognition. Venetian techniques involving inclusions of lacy cane and murrini, patterned colored glass, are among the most demanding skills in any art form. Berkower made a thorough study of them and now he’s in a position to be a bit blasé. “Reticello is simple,” he says and he is prepared to discuss the distinction between latticino (an often-misunderstood reference to milk, simply indicating the white color of canes) and mezza fillagrana, he believes a more correct term for a fine network of filaments. On a more subtle level of appreciation, Berkower says that the manipulation of canes produces a “randomness that can only be achieved out of order.” His skills are highly marketable. Gump’s has carried his work and he’s worked as a production artist making glass designs by the great modernist Eva Zeisel for the Orange Chicken.

He’s taught; he’s demonstrated; he’s traveled; and his work and skills are in demand. Nevertheless, in his application to the fellowship program Berkower indicated that he feels he is at a crossroads in his career and self-definition as an artist. He wrote, “At this critical point in my career [the three month fellowship] will provide me with an opportunity to pare down [my] ideas into a more cohesive and refined personal vision and, thus, reenter the market a more independent and further developed artist.” In his studio at CGCA, he simply says, “I’ve been spread very thin doing production and working for someone else. This is not what I want to do.”

He describes his interest in Italian techniques as “fairly cynical. I just think people in glass — Artists with a capital A—get too wrapped up in tradition and technique. There are people like Beth Lipman who have used that skill to make exceptional and content-driven work, [but] some people get so involved that ten years later they discover that they’ve forgotten how to be an artist and just learned how to be craftsmen. Now I have built up a vocabulary [of technique] and that’s the language I speak through. Now I need to use what I know to step somewhere else.

“I’m interested in the decorative object. Where does it lead? Is it a symbol of status? Do people buy it because they really love it or because their friend bought a Chihuly?” Berkower questions the role beauty will plays in the things he makes, “I want them to be at one stage beautiful and all those things the object is supposed to be but I also want them to be challenging, maybe dissonant, jarring.”

To this end, at Wheaton Village, Berkower integrated almost torturously complex glass techniques with the iconography of sports and science and with non-glass materials. He conceived of some of these rather elaborate structures as “models,” perhaps not for larger works but representing a larger vision. In one piece based on golf it appears that the elite nature of the game and its location in a highly manicured but seemingly natural environment (golf course) may be Berkower’s ironic commentary on the impact of social values in the natural context. The really, really miniature golf course—about the size of a big checker board—combines an architectural model and a perspective-based landscape with a large “golf ball,” represented in the form of a flat glass disk, in the foreground. The fact that this picture only works from a limited cone of viewpoints suggests a kind of metonymic exclusivity. The turf, though, is real. “I was going to use artificial material but I want to use living moss now,” Berkower explains. “Distant” buildings and landscape features are represented in glass.

A lecture at Corning by American-born, Amsterdam-based Richard Meitner made a strong impression on him. Berkower summarizes: “Art is just a series of experiments that are trying to help you figure out your surroundings and the world.” He recalls a friend who said, “It’s not about what it looks like; it’s about what it does.” He adds, “That’s a mantra to me.”

Another complex piece with the working title “Art Cart” is a tiny installation on a flat plywood surface balanced on pretty glass wheels. “This is carrying my art,” Berkower explains. The wheels resemble poker chips, but for Berkower the honeycomb pattern of murrini is more complex, suggesting nature, science, and industry. On the field, which may become an undulating topographical structure, a painting of round bubbly cloud/mountains suggests a landscape and skiers with the implication of transcending mountains, as well as playfulness. The cart is “about painting being on a higher echelon than craft, but it is carried by this obsessive interest in craft,” represented by the fragile glass wheels which actually broke during the construction of the piece.

Berkower simply laughed off this accident as a normal part of the process. “I don’t want to lose the sense of being innovative, experimental and questioning. I’ve had the best time in the last few weeks. For me it’s about integrity.”