"Craftsmanship is definitely not a career move..." (NEUES GLAS JANUARY ISSUE 1995)

The Art (and Politics) of Walter Lieberman

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BY GEOFFREY WICHERT

We should perhaps pity the present generations of artists, who came of age with two conflicting goals; on the one hand to inherit the Modernist project of aesthetic freedom, formalism, and abstraction: on the other, to make their work an expression of their whole being, including their personal, social, and political values. The need to reconcile these two divergent impulses has further fragmented movements and accelerated diversification, encouraging individual approaches and the use of unconventional materials and methods. The rise of not one but several glass arts has coincided with this conflict, and its resolution has influenced them from the beginning.

Walter Lieberman's career has followed this search for reconciliation. Fifteen years ago he was a sculptor whose primary technique was off-hand blowing. Today, he is a painter who enamels, often on manufactured glass. What moved him was the search for a more precise expression. Along the way, as his technique came into focus, his subject matter opened up. As he learned to speak more clearly, he found he had more to say.

Lieberman's early works were not exactly mute, of course. He called them "erosionware", an evocative but technical, and ultimately misleading description. Each began as a conventional, blown vase, which was sand-blasted with a contrasting pattern until the second design began to eat through the first. Essentially a visual presentation of dialectics; the pot was thesis, the abrasion anti-thesis, and the finished sculpture, in which the two were balanced, synthesis. Lieberman says, "I felt like I was trying to express some ideas in an abstract manner but that they were not being perceived the way I meant. I was thinking about a duality of society; the wealthy and the poor, the precious and the things which are destroyed. Beautiful museums and people starving, taking crack-there was no crack at that time, it was heroin-but all of this stuff co-existing."

This holistic environmental vision, where the state of the disenfranchised directly threatens the capacities of cultural institutions, was not a message such elegant vessels could contain. "What they ended up being perceived as was an aesthetic exercise and a valuable object. So I moved to figurative stuff to more literally express the ideas. But hopefully not too literally."

With the shift to representation his technique changed. "I started to run out of ideas to be executed in blown glass, and I moved along to sand-blasting. I started to see a wider and wider gap between what my philosophy was (I had always been very politically active) and what I was doing. I was moving into this world of decorating the homes of the rich and wealthy-which I still am-but I started to want to express things that were more in line with my philosphies of life. So I wanted to work in a more figurative manner, which I did with sand-blasting."

The change was dramatic. Erosionware had been fat, voluptuous, velvet skinned, suffused by light and aglow in color. In 1982, Lieberman filled a gallery in Seattle with glistening black slabs of vitrolite, heat-slumped into free standing panels, covered with graffiti-like images of urban street life. Although in strict terms bas-reliefs, they approached prints in their minimal use of depth clues and stress on contrast over modulation of color. In a city dominated by Chihuly and a school of glass artisans devoted to the splendid object, he proclaimed himself one who uses art to convey value rather than to display it.

"But sand-blasting and the decorative processes associated with hot glass are so indirect and so-unresponsive is the word that I use-not spontaneous or responsive to your touch like a brush is." Some artists are preoccupied with the popular success of their work. For Lieberman, the problem was rather that he still felt stifled by the material. "So that's one of the things that led me to paint, is that I wanted something that was responsive and immediate. The other thing was meeting Albinas Elskus. He really turned me on to painting on glass. He showed me how it could be."

For Lieberman, "painting" means enamels fired on flat sheets or around vessels, either custom blown or manufactured blanks. Sometimes mistaken for mere translations into glass, the truth is that these works do not fit easily into pre-existing categories of art. Though figurative to a literal degree, they are not naturalistic. They contain hallucinatory material but given an unavoidably paintly treatment. They borrow recognizable motifs, such as the Madonna or Eve, and images of such cult artists as Frida Kahlo or Max Beckmann drawn from their own self-portraits. Yet they do not appropriate. Each is a variation on, or a departure from, the familiar thing.

Most fall into two groups. One includes fairly straightforward political commentary presented in a Renaissance "manner." A pregnant nude, perhaps Eve, wears a rifle sling or cradles a dead bird. Smouldering oil wells on the horizon recall Kuwait. What seems blunt at first turns out to be complex and indirect. Lieberman follows the Old Masters to prove he is serious, but also to exploit the significance of their motifs. Eve was presented as pregnant to recall her role as mother of all humanity. In his allegories, Lieberman proposes that today's victims are the parents of our human future. In perhaps the most moving of these allegories, a Somali woman is presented in a surprisingly serene profile. "People may forget where Somalia is or what was happening in Somalia, but the thing I was trying to express was her beauty and dignity in the face of her adversity, marked by her thin-ness, her emaciation. I think that much will come through years from now, even though people may not have any memory of the event."

The other group, reworkings of well-known paintings, are actually more controversial than the overtly political ones. To charges that they lack originality, the painter responds, "I use their paintings as models but I make almost no effort to make them accurate. I'm trying to learn from, to put myself in their place in some way, but allow my own hand and my own thoughts to guide me. So I'm copying in a sense but in no more sense than if I was drawing you sitting here in front of me, if you were my model. Am I 'copying' your face when I make a painting of you? And then at the same time, I'm thinking about who I'm painting. To me they're sort of mythical figures-the Van Gogh myth and the Frida Kahlo myth. And I'm trying to do a number of things at once. Thinking about the psychology of the individual and then my own psychology. Some people say everything you paint is a self-portrait."

In reality, these seeming copies are closer in spirit to the variations musicians write on each other's themes. They are also no less charged with social consciousness than his other works. In "Nuestra Seľora de Guadalupe," he reconfigures the most celebrated religious artifact of the New World. Its significance lies in its historical role in the process of bringing indigenous Mexicans into the Catholic Church; a role in which the Virgin's dark skin was essential. Yet, he says, "If you go to Mexico, I dare you to find a dark skinned picture of her." So he made one, placing her on a bottle to call attention to her exploitation by the Conquerors as a way to "package" their culture for sale to the vanquished.

In person, Walter Lieberman is relaxed and affable, someone whose wry humor seems at odd with the seriousness of his subjects. "I don't begrudge any person the option of not involving their politics or their social concerns. It's just one way of approaching it, no better nor worse than any other," he offers after freely confessing his activist intentions. Then he adds, "It's not that I actually expect any direct result from the action of painting the individual painting. It's making a person conscious of these issues, rather than convincing them particularly one direction or the other." And a caution; "If a piece of artwork explains itself right away then you lose interest in it quickly. You should be able to go back and look at it many times and see many different things. Also, I hope to stay away from preaching solely to the converted. If your message is too much of a hammer over the head the only people who listen to you are people who already agree with you."

What his works offer, before, during, and after their social concerns, and what makes them worth going back to look at many times, is pleasure accessible to the eye. Lieberman counts on his craftsmanship to prove his seriousness, but he also regards quality as its own justification. "I think if you put enough energy into the craft, and you show respect and dedication to your ideas, the viewer will perceive that, and that involves two different kinds of viewers. One, the person who would normally reject your views out of hand because of their politics, and two, the people who would dismiss your work because it's ideology driven and not really art."

There is today a school of sorts in Seattle; artists who incorporate glass into painting as a means to expanded self-expression. His devotion to this emerging art form and determination to meld personal with social goals have made Walter Lieberman one of its leaders. Following the example of Albinas Elskus, he will also be sharing his skills in a world-wide series of workshops. This activity comes just as his own expressive powers are reaching maturity, and will create an opportunity to see the works in person (as they should be seen) and to meet their maker.