Beth Lipman's Glass Installations at the Norton: A Meditation on Life, Decay, and Death
Beth Lipman's One and Others sits in the center of a medium-sized gallery on the third floor of the Norton Museum's southwest wing. At first, it seems thoughtlessly hidden away, far from the main galleries clustered around the Central Courtyard on the first floor, where most of the action is usually situated. Spend a little time with Lipman's installation, however, and you'll come to realize that everything about it has been very carefully thought out — everything, in its own way, is strategic.
The installation is deceptively simple: a dramatically lit still life composed of dozens of pieces of clear glass of various sizes, all arrayed atop a black rectangular box. There are candlesticks, wineglasses, bowls, plants, pieces of fruit, an artist's palette. A small orb of glass with a glass chain lies on the floor below, as if it had rolled off and somehow survived the drop of a few feet. Several highly reflective "gazing balls" rest on the candlesticks, "to ward off evil spirits," we are told by the wall text.
The wall text also informs us that the wooden box is actually a casket, custom-made to the dimensions of the artist herself. Seen in this light, the still life suggests a glass version of the floral arrangements often placed on coffins at funerals. Another bit of wall text explains that the artist refers to the work as "a funerary piece." Elsewhere the artist alludes to the large cemetery on the other side of South Dixie Highway from the Norton. Another reference point for Lipman might be glass master Dale Chihuly's ceiling installation downstairs in the southwest wing, which re-creates the fecundity of a coral reef.
What, you may well ask, is going on here?
It helps to remember that still lifes are, above all, about mortality — about the inevitable deterioration, decay, and disintegration of all the abundance that is the ostensible subject of so much still-life painting. It's a favorite theme of Lipman's and one that is reinforced by the 15 other still lifes, both paintings and photographs, on the gallery walls enclosing her installation. The artist credits these selections from the Norton's permanent collection with inspiring her. Even the title One and Others — appropriated from a 1940s work by Louise Bourgeois — refers to both Lipman's piece and those surrounding it.
Lipman is unusually succinct about what she's up to. She's quoted in an article in the museum's magazine: "Glass has a perpetuity, or immortality to it. Even though glass is fragile, it mimics the life cycle. It has a duality to it. It's fragile and perishable, but also perpetual." Hence the seeming irony of a still life made of glass. As a counterpoint, one of the most powerful pieces Lipman has chosen to accompany her glass-draped casket is a short 2001 video by British artist Sam Taylor-Wood, who simply trains her camera on a still life and records a time-lapsed chronicle of the fruit as it spots, darkens, and molders.
The Lipman installation is by far the strongest component in the Norton's observance of the 50th anniversary of the studio glass movement in America. Downstairs, in one of those galleries off the Central Courtyard, there's a small show called "Studio Glass: Works From the Museum Collection." All 11 of the works included are exceptionally strong and varied — so much so that they ultimately leave you less than satisfied, hungry for more.
My favorite of the bunch is William Morris' Canopic Jar: Fawn, a large Egyptian-style vessel astonishing in its mimicry of stone. If not for the label, you'd probably never guess it's made of glass. The same is true of Howard Ben Tré's fountain-like Dedicant 12, an imposing cast-glass structure accented with brass, copper, gold, and lead.
And of course, no glass exhibition would be complete without something by the aforementioned Dale Chihuly. He's represented here by two massive macchia, the wavy bowl-like forms for which he's known.
Back on the other side of the museum, adjacent to Chihuly's ceiling installation, there's another exhibit with a glass connection — as in cocktail glasses. "Cocktail Culture" is a gleefully shallow show that focuses on the accouterments of what designer Christian Dior called "the symbol par excellence of the American way of life." (That our entire culture can be reduced to a mixed drink is a sad commentary, but I'll let it go.)
The most interesting items are bar sets from various eras, including one from Asprey & Co., made from 1940 through 1970, that features ivory-handled accessories. But the show, which has proved so unaccountably popular that it has been extended, is heavily dominated by its displays of cocktail dresses and their accessories. Give me Lipman and her ruminations on life and death, please.
The Norton has also been hosting the "Hot Glass Roadshow," which features live demonstrations of glass blowing courtesy of New York's Corning Museum of Glass. The demos, which are short (15 minutes) but fascinating, are in their final few days — they end on March 25.
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