Saturday, August 31, 2019

The New York Times Declares Stained Glass Ressurected. Rejoice. Or Don't.

Uh, it appears we are saved at last. Prepare to celebrate.  Or not.

Last week an article appeared in the “Style Magazine” section of the esteemed New York Times.
Under the rubric of the “Traditions” column, the headline read: “The Divine Resurrection of Stained Glass.”

Before I write another word, I need to issue an enormous caveat.  Here goes: I was really ticked off that the article didn’t mention me.  Yup—it insulted my big ol’ ego. Now, whining and moaning because a writer hasn’t heard the good news about how fabulous I am is pretty obnoxious.  So, I will say I have another horse in this race. I am someone who has devoted their adult life to working in the medium.  I have 35+ years’ experience as a maker and educator in the field. And while grand mission statements always seem ex post facto to me, I would say I had several intentions all along my journey, one being to exhibit stained glass as an art form and another to innovate the medium technically,  and yet another to create awareness of ancient media as perfectly viable vehicles for contemporary messages.

So: what about the article? Fasten your seat belts, here comes a rant.  First off, I like Nancy Hass’ writing style (with the exception of naming colors like the R and D department of a lipstick factory. What’s with that?) She has a way with words.  It was her “facts” that got me.
What a strange take on stained glass history!  It felt more than a little bizarre.  For such a short piece, Hass takes a deep dive right back to the Medieval, but really only to set up a lineage which is inaccurate and bizarre, to say the least.  Yeah, she probably got paid bupkis but just a little research might be nice.

“Though ubiquitous in churches since the High Middle Ages, when stained-glass windows taught the congregation Bible stories through imagery, it waned with the rise of unadorned Protestantism in the late 17th century. Morris made panes fashionable in the houses of the Victorian era, in shades of aquamarine, Kelly green and tangerine, to filter whatever sun could be found — a literal and figurative embodiment of enlightenment and, too, a canvas for his medieval motifs.”

There is increasing scholarship that disputes the “learning Bible stories” as the purported function of stained glass  (Thank you Rona Moody who cites Madeline Caviness).  As someone who has been to more than a few cathedrals, I will say, the impact of stained glass is far more than its narrative.  It’s more like a gut punch from the impact (abstract) of streaming colored light into a dark space. I know I can’t speak from a Medieval point of view, but it seems like common, human, bodily sense. And while it is true that stained glass waned with the rise of Protestantism, there was a lively secular tradition from the 16th c. onward. 
Did William Morris bring it back from the dead?  Ya know…I know Morris and Co. did a lot of stained glass, but I don’t really think of him as spearheading some kind of stained glass movement specifically. He didn’t really innovate the medium so much as apply his personal style to the same ol’-same ol’ execution.  It’s nice stuff, but hardly radical. It is true however, that the Arts and Crafts Movement revived stained glass.  Christopher Whall, Charles Rennie MacIntosh and Charles Connick might be more appropriately credited, although Morris is important cuz he’s an Arts and Crafts bigshot.
Hass goes on to cite Tiffany (but not LaFarge!!! And most definitely not Harry Clarke) and Albers and Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier. Another set of odd choices.  Not wrong exactly, but it feels like cherry picking. Where is Chagall? Or Matisse? One of the weirdest thinks about her history is that it’s sort of global, sort of USA.  (Her later case for her weird roster of revivers would make more sense if she just ignored Europe altogether!)  Hass’ history ends right there with the declaration: “but by the next decade [1960’s], stained glass came to be regarded as nostalgic Victoriana or hippie-ish kitsch. Contemporary art and architecture, wary of ornament and beguiled by monochromatic minimalism, had no use for it.”  Well…..let's see about that.

That history ignores what I think is the most important period of stained glass history since the medieval, and that is the post- world war European works by such giants as Schaffrath, Schreiter, Meistermann in Germany (check out this wonderful video by Sam Halstead!). The tradition I arise from was founded by Hans Gottfried von Stockhausen in Stuttgart and continued by many including my teacher Ursula Huth. It wasn’t nuthin’! Then there’s the UK…the amazing John Hutton and John Hayward and John Piper )…there are so many fantastic post war artists from the UK. Some even not named “John”!

I know what you’re thinking!!!  “But the author is right—who are those people, Judith?  If they were so significant why didn’t they make a splash in the art world?”  I do not disagree with the author’s subtext that stained glass became less important over the centuries. It has and for a variety of interesting reasons—none of which are that the work itself became crappier (although in every single art medium ever, there is plenty of crap if you are looking for it and stained glass seems to have produced a lot.  I have said in print before, it’s a medium that promises a lot in terms of message, transcendent experience and beauty and when it disappoints?  Man, does it disappoint!  It seems to “kischify” easier than oil paint for some reason.) 
I think it might be an interesting Masters thesis to write about why art, which we see as “sacred-ish” and “profoundly meaningful” and “intellectual” is deeply tied to the latest technologies (as opposed to ideologies) of its age.  Because in the age of microprocessors, the internet and space travel, I think stained glass damn well should be understood as yesterday’s news.  Yes, I SAID THAT.  I didn’t say it was irrelevant for that reason, or shittier or less worthy of respect…. it’s just old, technology-wise.  And that’s a solid fact.  If you are going to love stained glass, don’t pretend it’s something it’s not…it’s not nice to love someone for who you want them to be.  You must love them for who they are!  As it happened when stained glass first came to prominence it was the wildest, most advanced technology of its time.  As Nancy Hass says about William Morris’ work “a literal and figurative embodiment of enlightenment”—yes Nancy Hass, the Abbot Suger supposedly said in the 12th c.  “Stained glass is enlightenment embodied” and in 1100 it WAS just that!
It makes sense that if enlightenment is in disrepute, stained glass is going to suffer and morph into kitsch.

Anyway, Hass, has set up the scene for a “resurrection” …a word I always hear as “res-erection” because to me, seeing an old art form as somehow irrelevant or dead, further, to understand art at PROGRESSING to ever more avant garde forms of  avant gardishness  is to have a concept of time, art and progress that is very OEDIPAL and yes, phallic.  Its big and tall…not very wide.  It’s all  y axis, no x axis. Its all expansion economics, no contraction.
(Aside: technology progresses.  We have vaccines, computers, space missions now.  We didn’t have those before now.  But art?  It has not improved a single iota since 20,000 BCE.  Nope.  Not a bit.  But ya know what?  That’s an awesome fact.  Think about it and rejoice!  Art has illustrated Einstein’s theories of time. Again I eagerly await the thesis on the relationship of technology to art's "progress".)

Hass’ list of res-erectors are, like the rest of the article, truly strange choices.  We have the famous contemporary artists who have made (dabbled in) windows.  Kehinde Wiley and Amir H. Fallah.  This list ignores such luminaries as Kiki Smith, Gerhard Richter, Sigmar Polk, Judy Chicago, Wim Delvoye, David Hockney, James Jean and probably some more I am forgetting.  Never mind the implications of not fabricating the work (and how you can’t innovate a material if you’re not touching it--you can only apply modern thoughts to it), I like some of these folk’s work but I will say, as someone with a horse in this race: for the most part, like Morris and co. they just apply their jawn to the medium without “revolutionizing” it.  Take Wiley:  his work, to my mind, uses the trope of stained glass as a signifier of “the sacred (in European culture)” and does this with a Jedi-mind trick of replacing the expected characters with new, unexpected ones. Fine idea, but the glass was fabricated in the Czech Republic in the most pedestrian way possible. I think it sucks, personally, as stained glass.  Presumably, he doesn’t care about that so take what you will from what I say.  I love Amir H. Fallah’s work though—fabricated by the artists at Judson Studios (who also worked with James Jean).

Then there is the truly bizarre inclusion in the article of what I can only guess are her Instagram friends.  Not terrible work but hardly exemplars of revivalists, innovators or res-erectors.  A mobile made of beveled prisms?  Not the worst thing in the world but puh-leeeze…its hardly 360 joules to the heart of stained glass.  Hass seemed to focus on designers—but hey: she missed the stained glass car guy, Dominic Wilcox!  And the stained glass water tower guy, Tom Fruin!
Here’s something the AGG or the SGAA could and should write an article about: the insurgent DIY stained glass movement which has its main venue as Instagram.
You know: I think most of that work isn’t quite ready for prime time—but I love that young people are loving stained glass and it seems they are doing it in droves.  This is an awesome thing!!  And it is a thing!  Its even trendy!

So, what’s missing from the article?  Artists who work in stained glass themselves and work in such a way as to innovate the technology and the message simultaneously and in concert with each other.  And my burning question: is Brian Clarke really “the lone voice for stained glass in the art world” for the past 40 years?  WELL, KILL ME NOW!!!  I have one thing to say and that is the word NO.  No, he’s not. 

Love 'em or hate em'  a brief list of stained glass movers and shakers off the top of my head would include JeffZimmer, Glenn Carter, Sasha Zhitneva, Rick Prigg, Marie Foucault Phipps, MaryClerkin Higgins, Troy Moody, Angela Steele, Pinkie Maclure, Tim Carey, Narcissus Quagliata, Helen Whittaker, and I know I am forgetting a bunch.  I am trying to get into my studio so I am rushing this off.

Nancy Hass, I wanted to love your article but all the above notwithstanding, how can you end with the Clarke quote that compares glass to plastic (even if he does mean the celluloid of movie film)?

And now I am going to take a few deep breaths and go back to my studio.  Thanks for listening!!