Like Dutch still-life painters of the 16th and 17th centuries, American artist Beth Lipman sees images of food as a metaphor for desire, consumption, decadence and consequence.
But unlike the European painters— who were primarily male, she points out—Lipman works with colorless glass, creating large, complicated three-dimensional sculptures that retain the exact composition of a particular still-life painting, yet reinterpret it with the luminosity, full-bodiness, and texturing that is possible with blown, flameworked, kiln-formed and sculpted glass.
Plump grapes that we can almost taste spill over a tablecloth. Blownglass pitchers and plates are arranged just as the painter placed them. But there also is a sense of temporality in her work. Insects approach a ripe pear; a wine glass is tipped over; a stem is broken. Within the tableau of abundance are hints of abuse, decay, and mortality.
One of her most ambitious works is Bancketje, a banquet table 20 feet long, with more than 400 individual blown or flameworked pieces. The Museum owns an earlier, smaller still life, Untitled (After A. Martini) (2001.4.20). In this piece, Lipman re-creates a generic still life by an Italian painter that she found on a vintage enamel decal. Lipman reproduced the painting on the decal in glass, and she then applied the decal to her glass sculpture.
“I grew up surrounded by still-life images,” Lipman states. Her mother is a self-taught folk painter, who amassed many books on tole (decorative lacquer and enamel painting on metal) and other types of folk painting. “Unconsciously, I absorbed the imagery.”
She was introduced to glass as an artist’s medium at age 16, when she attended art camp at Horizon’s New England Craft Program. But it was only later, at Tyler School of Art at Temple University, where she earned her BFA, that “I finally understood the material and why I am doing it.” She has focused on food for much of her work in glass, she says because food is such a universally understood symbol.
Lipman sees many parallels between her work and that of the European painters whose compositions have inspired her. “Both are times of abundance. The late 1500s and early 1600s was the first time that food became a commodity. The still-life painting was a symbol of what someone could afford, but it also told the story of the vices of excess.”
There are other parallels, too. “Still-life painting was once considered banal, disdained as an art form. The same has been true of glass through history. Glassmaking has been considered a decorative art, not fine art. I find these parallels fascinating.”
Originally Lipman worked solo, but during the making of Bancketje, she began working with teams of up to 15 artists and assistants. “I wanted to push people to stretch, capturing their hand in the moment,” she explains. “I have found that letting someone else’s hands come in broadens the vocabulary.” Bancketje was exhibited for the first time in 2003 at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center in Sheboygan, Wisconsin.
During a residency at The Studio in 2006, Lipman explored yet another theme for her work, making pieces for Large Bouquet in the tradition of floral still lifes. “I had been thinking about doing this for a while and finally figured out how to assemble it. I’ve not ever made something like this.”