A slab of cheese, a mound of pigs’ feet, wedges of watermelon, a bowl of eggs and a platter of oysters have all been left to ruin on the massive wooden dining room table. A towering centerpiece, pregnant with fruit, has keeled over, taking out goblets and candlesticks in its wake. Already, snails are arriving in droves. A squirrel, eyeing the situation from its perch on the wall nearby, prepares to fling itself into the tableau. This scene of out- and-out gluttony, teetering on the brink of chaos, is all the more precarious because it is made entirely of glass. “Still Life With Metal Pitcher” (2007) is the focal point of the artist Beth Lipman’s installation “After You’re Gone,” on view at the RISD Museum of Art in Providence, R.I., through January 2009. Lipman describes the work as a distorted interpretation of Dutch still life painting, drawing parallels between the golden era of that genre and today’s consumerism, and she does it all through the medium of glass. Inspired by a visit to the Pendleton House, the RISD Museum’s 1906 neo-Georgian wing, she brought even more to the already loaded table, adding glass topiaries, a pair of convex glass portraits and an alarmingly ornate glass claw-foot settee, to create her own version of a period room.
And then there is the wallpaper. “I wanted to anchor the room and tie it all together,” explains Lipman, who based the blotchy, impressionistic pattern on a floral design from the museum’s archives. What from a distance looks like disintegrating flocked velvet, on closer inspection, reveals itself to be composed of hundreds of pieces of handmade glass, each of which is individually attached to the gallery walls. To meet the deadline for the exhibition’s opening, Lipman and her husband, Ken Sager, kept the fires going in their Wisconsin studio throughout the winter, sifting crushed glass into templates and then fusing it in the kilns. When I ask Sager how many pieces there are, he just shakes his head. This is Lipman’s most elaborate installation — so far, anyway.
Lipman discovered glass blowing as a teenager at a summer campspecializing in crafts. “It was difficult, and I didn’t really like it,” she recalls. “I honestly don’t know why I stuck with it.” Her mother made painted folk art, and Lipman claims that she is still in therapy over having been dragged to crafts fairs as a child. So even while she became increasingly enamored with glass, “making functional objects to sell in that context was never an option for me,” she says. She went on to study glass and textiles at Massachusetts College of Art and Design and then at the Tyler School of Art at Temple University, where she was regularly confronted with the divide in academic programs — and in the culture at large — between art and craft. At best, objects made of glass could be classified as “decorative art.” Then, while at Tyler, she took her first glass sculpturing class. “It was enormously freeing,” she says. “For the first time, I didn’t have to make a vessel.”
Originally, Lipman was adamant about making every piece of glass with her own two hands, but as she has evolved from single-piece works to increasingly elaborate installations that involve 400 or more individual pieces and countless production techniques, she has learned to embrace the collaborative nature of her medium. Glass blowing is not a solitary pursuit (according to Lipman, it’s not uncommon to find yourself dependent upon the technical expertise of half a dozen people). And even the glass seems to have its own agenda. “Making sculpture can be a humiliating experience for me because you are always confronted with the fact that you are human,” she says.
And while she is the first to admit that she is not a master craftsman, this, she believes, is what ultimately sets her apart as an artist. The tension in her work, she is quick to point out, doesn’t come from its technical virtuosity but from the feeling of “Oh my God, it’s broken and it’s on the table.” Lipman doesn’t reject anything that she makes. “Basically, I’m a hack,” she says. “But I’m setting deliberate parameters so I don’t become too invested in the crafts process. I want it to be about the fragility of life and the inability to achieve perfection.”
Recently, however, Lipman had a brush with perfection when she was given the opportunity to work with Steuben Glass, the venerable American glass company based in Corning, N.Y. Her “Grand Sculpture,” an assortment of historically exotic fruits (including a pineapple, a pear, various lemons, a pomegranate and so on), can be normally displayed according to an accompanying diagram — or not.
“It taps into every person’s need to nest and decorate,” she says of the piece, which will be available next month in a limited edition for $38,000. “And it allows the client to indulge in endless compulsive rearranging.”
This was the first time Lipman had worked solely as a designer, leaving the glass making in someone else’s hands. “These are people who have been blowing glass for 30 years,” she says of the Steuben craftsmen. “I say, ‘Let’s make a persimmon,’ and they nail it. But their tendency is toward perfection. I am thinking, What would my work look like if it were more perfect? And here they are thinking, What would our work look like if it were more organic?”
But some aspects of the process will inevitably remain beyond human control. “Part of the work is taking risks with the installation,” Lipman says as she prepares herself mentally to remove the wooden braces from the glass settee. “Hopefully it will stand.” The bench in fact holds its weight, but either way she would have been fine. “It’s all a continuation of the life cycle,” says Lipman, who has been known to add one last grace note to her installations by sprinkling broken glass on the floor underneath the table. “I’m just a caretaker of objects that may or
may not survive with or without me.”