Beth Lipman works in glass, a medium usually associated with decorative—as opposed to fine—art. Lipman calls into question that distinction, making it seem both arbitrary and reductive. Her autonomous glass sculptures not only display a remarkable level of craftsmanship but also refined aesthetic judgment. Moreover, she stakes a claim for their place in the art historical narrative, alluding to specific precedents with wit and sophistication. Museums have been quick to acquire her pieces, which often establish a dialogue with older works in their collections. The Museum of Wisconsin Art, in West Bend, recently showcased her Sideboard with Blue China (2013) in “Beth Lipman: Precarious Possessions.”
Sideboard, measuring nearly 25 feet wide and 9 feet high, is an extravagantly scaled homage to Victorian conspicuous consumption, in this case an 1853 sideboard by designers Bulkley and Herter (Museum of Fine Arts, Houston). The original piece of furniture embodies the nineteenth-century appetite for ornament, and Lipman’s choice of blue china as a component in the title acknowledges the competitive mania for Asian ceramics shared by artists such as Dante Gabriel Rossetti and James McNeill Whistler as well as their wealthy patrons and that central figure of the Aesthetic Movement, Oscar Wilde, who remarked: “I find it harder and harder to live up to my blue china.” But by reinterpreting the dark and heavy material of the 1853 sideboard in transparent glass, Lipman creates a ghostly simulacrum, a challenge to that apparently substantial display of household wealth and status. The tradition of using possessions to bolster reputation goes back through the Golden Age of Dutch painting to the Renaissance, to antiquity and the treasure hoards buried with kings.
Lipman evokes this funereal tradition explicitly in One and Others (2011), a site-specific installation commissioned by the Norton Museum of Art. She uses, as a platform for an elaborate still life, a dark casket that serves as a memento mori. The glass objects, simultaneously dazzling and fragile, include gazing balls, copied from Devid Teniers the Younger’s The Interior of a Nobleman’s Gallery; replicas of objects in the museum’s collection; crystalline versions of floral swags, based on Daniel Seghers’s A Garland of Pink Roses, a Tulip, a Pink Cornation, Narcissi and Other Flowers; as well as fruit, flowers and leaves. The installation underlines the inherent contradictions of the still-life genre, which the French acknowledge with the term nature morte. At the same time, this tour de force celebrates the triumph of artifice. The poet Elinor Wylie made a similar point in her novella The Venetian Glass Nephew, in which lovers—a human girl and a boy made of glass—are united when (in contrast to such parables as Pygmalion and Galatea, and Pinocchio) she is transformed into a work of art.
Lipman finds the still-life tradition a rich source for her explorations. She writes in an artist’s statement on her website: “The absence of color captures the essence of an object and offers a counterpoint to trompe l’oeil found in still-life painting. As with painting, glass makes perishable objects everlasting. The compositions are simultaneously in the process of formation and decay.” Lipman is carrying on the legacy of the vanitas still life, with its thematic juxtaposition of blossoming, ripening and rot. Still Life with Fruit (after Severin Roesen), from 2000 (Brooklyn Museum of Art), mimics the forms of the painted composition with great artistry: fruit, leaves, a nautilus shell, a goblet and delicate branches testify to her extraordinary technique. But this is more than clever copying. The painter gives us a two-dimensional work, a painted illusion that invites us into the frame with the colors of nature. Lipman brings the composition into the gallery space as a three-dimensional sculpture, undeniably physical. Yet the absence of color makes the objects seem ethereal, and Lipman avails herself of a series of new properties, including refraction and reflection, inherent in her medium. Sometimes, she explores the brittleness of glass, as in Pitcher and Vines, in which a table laden with bottles and champagne glasses, and half-eaten fruit and bread, is invaded by kudzu vines—nature’s revenge on bourgeois luxury, in the appropriately breakable medium of glass. Bride, seen at the North Carolina Museum of Art in a 2013 exhibition, adds social commentary to historical exemplars in a monumental wedding cake with echoes of Miss Havishman. The top tiers of glassware are pristine, while below, things break and even melt, and small wild animals lurk among the shards. “Beth Lipman: Precarious Possessions, “organized in collaboration with Claire Oliver Gallery in New York City, was on view February 7–April 13, 2014, at the Museum of Wisconsin Art, 205 Veterans Avenue, West Bend, Wisconsin. wisconsinart.org.