Thursday, February 28, 2008

Kicking glass

The Weekly Volcano art guy explains himself.

Published in the Weekly Volcano Feb 28, 2008

Recent visual arts coverage in the Weekly Volcano has been all about glass. I was very generous in my praise of Lino Tagliapietra, Willim Morris, and Paul and Dante Marioni. But I might have rankled some glass lovers when I wrote: “I might as well confess right now that I am not particularly enamored of glass art. I’m rather sick of the proliferation of glass in the Northwest.”

Maybe I need to explain. It’s just that I hate things that become too popular. Like reality TV, catch phrases such as “bottom line” and “at the end of the day,” and glass art.

To make it simple, most of what is called glass art is craft, not art, and although the differences may be subtle and hard to explain, there is a difference between art and craft. Art is transformative, transcendental; it stimulates new ways of looking and thinking and feeling. Craft just looks nice. To elevate a craft to the status of art, which is what most of the Northwest glass art phenomenon has done, is like equating Harlequin Silhouette romance novels with the literature of Faulkner and Hemingway. It’s like equating Pat Boone’s “Love Letters in the Sand” with Bob Dylan’s “All I Really Want to Do (is, baby, be friends with you).”

Next door to the Museum of Glass and connected to William Traver Gallery is Vetri, a gallery dedicated to fine glassware. It is filled with beautiful items to decorate your home. But there is seldom, if ever, any art to be found at Vetri. Traver and Museum of Glass, on the other hand, exhibit fine art, including sculpture, sometimes but rarely paintings, and craft items — most of which are made from glass or glass combined with other materials. The material is almost incidental.

William Morris’ giant installations don’t even look like glass although they are. They look more like combinations of metal, ceramic and bone. They are thought provoking, often disturbing and highly innovative. His work is art first and glass second. The same is true with Paul Marioni’s glass sculpture currently on display at Traver. His pieces would look pretty much the same if they were made with clay or wood or cast plastic. It is the idea more than the look that makes his sculptures fascinating. His son, on the other hand, crafts traditional vessels that for all their beauty do not rise to the same level of art as his father’s work (I am speaking of the specific pieces in the Traver show, not their entire bodies of work; I have not seen enough to make that judgment).

Lino Tagliapietra, the featured artist at the Museum of Glass, is both a fine artist and a fine craftsman. Chances are he would not acknowledge that distinction. My guess is he would probably say it is all the same. He learned his craft in Venice, and his earlier work is steeped in the European tradition. But then he came to America and worked with the Pilchuck glass artists and absorbed much of their innovative spirit, and both traditions are clearly evident in his work.

Finally (at the end of the day), most of the blame and most of the praise is due to Dale Chihuly. He popularized glass art as nobody else ever has and directed the eyes of the world’s art community squarely on our little postage stamp of Earth here in the Pacific Northwest (excuse me, William Faulkner). I don’t know Chihuly and don’t really want to (excuse me, Bobble Tiki), but I have a love-hate relationship with his art. Basically, he just makes pretty little glass bowls and plates and whatnot and blows them up to gigantic proportions. Big deal. But every once in awhile he does something truly amazing, usually in the form of a large-scale installation that becomes astounding through sheer size.

I’m glad that Chihuly has drawn attention to the Northwest. But I’m really tired of looking at glass goblets.

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