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Friday, December 19, 1997 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Objects And Objections -- Richard Marquis' Playful Glass Sculptures Are Commentaries On Art, Craft, Culture

Seattle Times Art Critic

Art review

"Richard Marquis Objects, 1967-1997," at the Seattle Art Museum, First Avenue and University Street, through Aug. 2, 1998. And "Richard Marquis, Objects of Prolonged Endeavor," at Elliott Brown Gallery, 619 N. 35th St., through Jan. 31. The gallery will be closed Dec. 24 through Jan. 5.

Richard Marquis is Seattle's most acclaimed unknown glass artist.

Curators admire his work. Critics praise his intelligence as an artist. Other glassblowers pay homage to him as a master of some of glassblowing's most difficult techniques.

But ask people who loyally troop to Seattle galleries on First Thursdays to name a couple of famous contemporary glass artists, and Marquis' name isn't likely to be mentioned. Dale Chihuly, William Morris, Dante Marioni, sure. But Marquis?

That may be about to change. A retrospective of Marquis' 30-year career opened yesterday at the Seattle Art Museum. A two-month show of some of his most recent work opened in early December at Elliott Brown Gallery, his Fremont gallery.

Marquis a few weeks ago published a highly readable coffee-table book on his career that is being distributed by the University of Washington Press. The book's essay was written by Seattle art historian Tina Oldknow.

Puttering around the SAM show earlier this week cleaning fingerprints off his sculptures and the display cases, the 52-year-old, still boyish-looking artist hardly seemed like someone who cares much about publicity. One of the reasons many people don't know his work is that he keeps about one-third of everything he makes. He always has.

Galleries are not flooded with his deceptively irreverent, playful, frequently witty sculptures, which, in any case, are exasperatingly time-consuming to make. Having supported himself in the first part of his career with university teaching jobs at such places as the University of California at Berkeley and Los Angeles, and the University of Washington, the need to please customers and sell lots of work has never been one of his primary concerns.

Even the title of the show, which is also the title of the book, "Richard Marquis Objects, 1967-1997," is a clever double entendre. The show is made up of objects: teapots, goblets, vessels and abstract sculptures. But Marquis also has always objected, in his own quiet, well-informed way, to the hype and glamour that is part of any popular art scene, including the current glass-art scene.

Asked why he decided to mix low-brow, found objects such as toy rubber chicks and novelty salt and pepper shaker sets into his works, he admits he did it because it was interesting intellectually. There are several of these pieces in the SAM show, and they are not the sort of seductively gorgeous glass sculptures that are most often on display at local galleries. They are appealing, in a good-humored, funky, smart way. Many are commentaries on art, craft and culture.

But the main reason Marquis makes them is because he relishes the paradox of mixing extremely hard-to-make glass vessels that are throwbacks to bravura Venetian glassblowing with cheap, manufactured tchotchkes.

Though painters and mixed-media artists have been incorporating so-called "found objects" - which can be anything from toys to tools to discarded pop tops - into their work for decades, most glass artists stick with glass. Glass is beautiful and most collectors like to keep it that way.

"Other people wanted to sell their work. I guess I never cared that much," said Marquis, who started his art career as a ceramics student at the University of California at Berkeley in the early '60s. It was the heyday of the highly creative and influential California funk art scene, and Marquis owes much of his early development as an artist to the movement's anti-establishment, nose-snubbing point of view. The movement celebrated the dignity of the "dumb," or commonplace object, and the many glass and ceramic teapots in the SAM show come directly out of that aesthetic.

"The thing I liked about clay was that it was not inherently beautiful," said Marquis, even though a few of his clay pieces in the SAM show are beautiful in a quirky, exuberant way. They are mostly cups and non-functional teapots that look like heirlooms from a hippie bride's trousseau.

"The problem with glass is that it is beautiful. That has been detrimental to the studio-glass movement," said Marquis. "Glass is just too pretty."

Ironically for an artist who goes out of his way to make art that is more about ideas and technique than classical beauty, Marquis is master of a number of arcane glassblowing techniques that can result in stunningly beautiful work. Marquis was first exposed to many of the techniques, including the use of murrine, when he spent a year working at the legendary Venini Fabbrica glass factory in Murano, Italy. He was there in 1969 on a Fullbright-Hayes Fellowship, just a year after Dale Chihuly had apprenticed at the factory.

Along with Chihuly, Marquis was one of the first of the generation of glass artists coming of age in the 1960s to seriously study glassblowing with Italian masters. It is now considered a rite of passage for aspiring young American glassblowers to do a tour of duty in Murano.

In the '60s and '70s, however, the early period of the American studio glass movement, a more free-wheeling philosophy appealed to most of the then-young American artists attracted to glass. They saw themselves as the practitioners of three-dimensional abstract expressionism, slinging molten glass around in the way that abstract expressionist painters appeared to drip, throw and splat paint on canvas.

Or they admired the nonchalant sloppiness of pop art, and tried to emulate that in glass. One of the glass movement's pioneers, University of Wisconsin art professor Harvey Littleton, said in the early '60s that "technique is cheap," a soon-to-become famous mantra meant to provoke young glass artists into thinking about the art rather than the craft of glassblowing.

Marquis, however, always believed in technique. In the early '70s, when he was briefly teaching at the University of Washington, he kept a poster on his wall that said "Technique is not so cheap," a slogan that has become a summation of his career.

"I always wanted to have a large vocabulary of techniques," said Marquis. At the same time, he has never believed in flaunting technique just for the razzle-dazzle of being able to. One of the most intriguing and highly conceptual displays in the SAM show is a group of six glass bottles on ceramic plates, all of which are painted in flat gray and green acrylic paint. The little joke here is that both the plates and the bottles were made using highly decorative and complicated techniques that now are hidden from view by ugly acrylic paint.

"My point was, just because you can make something beautiful and complicated doesn't mean you should," said Marquis. "I was teaching at the time I made this, and I used it for a teaching tool."

In the world of glass sculpture, Marquis is known as the master of murrine, a centuries-old Venetian technique which involves heating and stretching canes of colored glass, then slicing off sections like bits of pulled taffy. The murrine can be as small as a pinhead. The murrine are then used as the building blocks for a glass mosaic, a process that means laying out the tiny murrine in a pattern, fusing them together with heat, then "picking" them up on a glassblower's pole to shape the molten mosaic sheet into a vessel or other sculpture.

For his master's degree in glass at the University of California in 1972, Marquis used murrine to make a series of tiny plaques, some literally the size of a tack head, each containing the full Lord's Prayer in glass mosaic. The piece, a veritable Ripley's-Believe-It-or-Not spectacle of technique, is included in the SAM show.

Other highlights of the SAM show include several "Marquiscarpas," boat-shaped murrine dishes affixed to pedestals that suggest extremely elegant ancient Egyptian serving dishes. Nefertiti might have used these to hold fruit, if she had been fortunate enough to have them. Because their shapes are based partly on designs made by the Italian architect and designer Carlo Scarpa, who was a designer for Venini, Marquis pays tribute to Scarpa by calling the sculptures a made-up name which is the merging of his name with Scarpa's.

Then there are the heart-shaped boxes of Valentine candy made of exquisite little murrine. Marquis made these for his wife, and it's a good thing they're behind glass. Otherwise it would be hard to resist reaching into the box and popping one of the glass candies in your mouth. They look like the most beautiful hardtack in the world.

Vicki Halper, who curated the SAM exhibition, said that "although Dick is collected by major collectors, and is well-known by artists, he's not part of the Pilchuck School of Glass hype, and I think that's why he isn't as well known. But for me, he is the most interesting glass artist who still works in a traditional sense.

"He has incredible technical finesse and I think it shows that, as an artist, he came from a community that was aesthetically mature and vibrant," said Halper. "The ceramic scene in California when he was there was well established. So, as a glass artist, he didn't have to start from scratch."

Copyright (c) 1997 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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