Each piece of glass blown by Walter Zimmerman, who completed his second residency at the Creative Glass Center of American in the fall of 2001, is a temporal, mortal nexus. Past, present and future weave through the broken, beautiful surface suggesting wounds, scabs, scars, and, somehow, survival and the possibility of growth. Fragments of material history penetrate each layered lobe-like object, which is simultaneously self-contained and presented as part of a more complex whole.
Zimmerman’s framing and display devices: the grubby techno-scientific metal boxes, carts and rubber tubing imply a Kafka-esque psychosocial context, meaningless order, obliquely erotic and perversely humanized through apathy and neglect. Though its core metaphors are psychological and social, glass for Zimmerman, is always surrogate for human flesh. He likens its lucent beauty to the confusing appeal of color, form and texture he recognized when as a child on a hunting trip, he was mesmerized by the gutting of a deer. "The liver was beautiful, sumptuous," he recalls but his child’s rational mind demurred: " ‘This is evil. This is Bambi.’ "
Zimmerman’s handling of glass follows a ritualized sequence. "The steps are routine. I know what’s going to happen. Dance is a good metaphor, but it isn’t a solo dance. I’m partnering the glass." However chance is decisive in this dance. Zimmerman’s "routine" produces unpredictable results. In some ways his approach resembles John Cage’s compositions for a "prepared" piano, in which strings were randomly tuned or stretched to accommodate objects. The outcome is both surprising and expected.
Usually working alone, Zimmerman cossets the infant gather of glass, often forming it into a layered ovoid resembling a fetal sac, but just when the soft glass has grown beyond infancy, "accidents begin to happen." It is plunged into water so networks of cracks and fissures expose underlying color. It’s reheated and rolled in trays containing fragments of broken glass, metal, heat-resistant fabric and small objects including safety pins. Some adhere and others do not. Some survive the fire, others vanish. The artist occasionally glues together whole works which fragment during the stress of making, mimicking the repair of a shattered life.
By embracing such damage, Zimmerman meticulously re-enacts a story which is both personal and universal. "Everybody suffers. Everybody is wounded. Everyone. We live in a culture that worships the bud and the first bloom, not one that acknowledges the whole cycle."
He incorporates the finished pieces of glass within assemblage. Their cryptic narrative drama reflects Zimmerman’s own theatrical background. Wires, discolored metal, corrugated tubes and other fragments of equipment which are "discarded or used to the point of exhaustion" deliberately allude to science and medicine. "I envy science," he’s said. "I’m aware that once science and art were seen as the front and back of the same hand. [Today] art has been trivialized."
Finished glass objects are supported on and connected to mechanical fittings from many sources: gas, plumbing, and electrical completing a grubby diorama of some abandoned Frankenstein experiment. To Zimmerman, the once functional settings project an aura of "protective coloration" and "respect" around the visceral glass, but his recontextualization also casts a shadow of doubt over the power and supposed objectivity of the emblems of science. One subtext here is that what as regarded as "knowledge" is equivocal and ever-changing.
Zimmerman’s ordering — or artful disordering — of objects conjures up a narrative, not at a pivotal decisive moment but in the dreary suffering following catastrophe. Perhaps his training in art therapy helps to guide him smoothly from the personal and confessional to a broader more communal plane.
He says "I’m fortunate in that my woundedness didn’t compromise my body and I’ve blundered into a situation where I can turn and face what I experienced as deep personal shame and use it as fuel." Although he knowingly recapitulates the experiences of a traumatic childhood in his work, he avoids specifics. He will never literally represent "The day the family broke, when my brothers and father got in that big black Buick and my mother and sister stood in their matching pink nightgowns and waved good-bye." He detaches the emotional essence from the anecdotal. In recognition of the broader aspects of his work, he adds, "One of the most painful responsibilities in life is being present and powerless for the inevitable. Sometimes all I can do is stand and witness."
Among the over-arching themes suggested by the damaged and incomplete character of Zimmerman’s sculpture is his critique of "the prevailing American myths and stringent social norms. In my work I create the (American) sense of mobility but thwart it. We are a ‘free’ country but God help the person who is different."
"My work looks bleak and many people find it discomforting," he muses. "I use my discomfort as a gauge. If I have a choice I always choose the less comfortable option. BUT here’s the silly secret: I find this junk and this glass that no one wants and put it together. This stuff is garbage I have rescued." Just as Zimmerman subsumes his own abandoned, wounded childhood into art which is at once visually satisfying and emotionally distressing, he transforms abandoned, wounded objects into poignant icons of compassion.