Earth, Wind and Fire

Remarkable achievements in craft traditions are on display in two local shows. At Cherry Creek's Pismo, Lino Tagliapietra, a living legend of Venetian glassmaking, is the subject of a self-titled solo show. Up in Golden, it's the Colorado Clay Exhibition 1998, this year's version of the venerable annual showcasing some of the state's best ceramic artists.

To say that Lino Tagliapietra is eye-dazzling is to state the obvious: The master's brightly hued art glass literally gleams under Pismo's spotlights. The show also provides a good look at the 64-year-old Tagliapietra's contemporary takes on traditional Venetian techniques. It was organized by Pismo owner Sandy Sardella (married to TV newscaster Ed Sardella), who also operates two other galleries under the Pismo name. In addition to the flagship Fillmore Street location, Sardella has Pismo on East Third Avenue, which sells artist-made furniture, and Pismo in Beaver Creek, which, like the Fillmore Street location, specializes in art glass. (Another, smaller Tagliapietra show is on display in Beaver Creek.)

Sardella founded her Pismo chain in 1990, opening a craft gallery at the East Third Avenue location. This demonstrated some real courage, because at that time, Cherry Creek North, like most of the rest of Denver, was far from the boomtown it is now. But despite the seemingly bad timing, Sardella wanted to change careers; before she opened her first gallery, she worked as a tax consultant--"the complete opposite of what I'm doing now."

Sardella became interested in art glass when she began collecting it about fifteen years ago. In fact, she wanted to specialize in glass when she first opened her gallery, but she gave up when "some of the local glass artists convinced me" Denver wasn't ready for such a gallery. She started Pismo as a multi-media gallery in 1990, but before long, she realized her dream, turning increasingly to art glass at the East Third Avenue spot and opening the all-glass Fillmore Street location three years ago.

"The space is perfect for glass--it's so light and open," Sardella says. The Fillmore Pismo was launched to rave reviews with a major exhibition of the work of Seattle glass wizard Dale Chihuly. Oddly enough, Tagliapietra had a hand in that show, as well; the Venetian master actually made many of the Chihulys on display based on his colleague's designs.

Born in 1934 on the island of Murano--the center of Venetian glassmaking for the last thousand years or so--Tagliapietra showed an early talent for and interest in the preferred local craft. At age eleven, he worked as an apprentice in the studio of the renowned Archimede Seguso. At age 22, by which time he was working for Galliano Ferro's studio, he was so accomplished that he was awarded the official title of maestro, or master. In the mid-1960s, Tagliapietra went to work for the most famous of all Venetian glassmakers, Venini; there he met Chihuly, who was in Venice on a Fulbright Fellowship. But it would be ten years before the two would work together again.

At the Seguso, Ferro and Venini studios, Tagliapietra helped execute other people's designs. But in 1968 he moved to the La Murrina glass house and began to create his own works. In the 1970s and '80s he served as design director of Effetre International. And he began to teach, especially in the U.S., at such prestigious glassmaking studios as Washington's Pilchuck Glass School and Maine's Haystack School of Crafts. As a teacher, Tagliapietra was known for generously sharing his technical knowledge; as a result, he had a tremendous impact on the course of contemporary American glass-blowing, helping make traditional Venetian techniques dominant in this country.

Though Tagliapietra continued to create the designs of other artists like Chihuly until only a few years ago, he now works exclusively on his own creations. And what marvelous creations they are, as the show at Pismo amply reveals.

As might be expected given Tagliapietra's prowess in traditional techniques and shapes, nearly everything in the Pismo show is a vessel--typically in the form of the vase--with only a handful of genuinely sculptural pieces. Several of the best pieces offer a tip of the glass-blower's pipe to the years Tagliapietra spent at Venini. In the exquisite bottle-shaped vase "Eve"--displayed, appropriately enough, in Pismo's front window--cream canes are placed over yellow battuto glass, and it's all encased in a layer of clear glass.

One of Tagliapietra's strengths is the way he combines technical expertise with artistic innovation. In the bulbous bottle vase "Foemina," he lays a swirl of black canes over transparent amber battuto. And unlike in the highly decorated "Eve," Tagliapietra has left the front of the vase free of the black canes, allowing the back of the vase to be seen from the front, as through a window.

Both "Eve" and "Foemina" are meant to suggest the shape of a woman, but they also bring to mind ancient Mediterranean vessels. That's also true of the densely decorated vases from the "Madras" series. In these pieces, Tagliapietra weaves blue, black, brown and yellow canes in a pattern reminiscent of the famous Indian plaid of the same name. A similar feel for rich patterning is seen in the spectacular "Atlantis" vase, which is made with black filigree laid over green pulegoso glass.

Tagliapietra tries out a different approach in his most recent vases, both of which feature all-over carving that flattens the sheen. The use of incising, carving and cutting is seen elsewhere in the show, but not to this extent. "Riflessivo di Luna," in which pink, blue and black canes are laid over green battuto, is in the form of a flattened, up-ended disc; Tagliapietra has pierced one side with a round hole. In "Riverstone," Tagliapietra uses the same shape, but this time without the hole.

Artists like Tagliapietra, who manage to use age-old methods to create contemporary art, are a rare treasure, and we're lucky that Sardella thought to bring his work to town. But there are other paths to artistic success. One can, for instance, simply reject tradition--as well-known Colorado ceramic artist Paul Soldner has done over the past several decades. A pioneer of ceramic abstract expressionism, Soldner served as the lone juror for Colorado Clay Exhibition 1998 at Golden's Foothills Art Center.

The show in Golden begins with one of Soldner's own pieces, a spectacular untitled sculpture that has been placed in the small front gallery and is a hard act to follow. Made of clay slabs laced with spatters of icy green, the sculpture is the result of reduction firing, a characteristic of the raku method. Despite Soldner's interest in abstract sculpture, most of the pieces from other artists that he chose for Colorado Clay are examples of functional pottery. Luckily, Colorado is fairly rich in clay artists, so the rest of the show offers many rewards.

Displayed on low stands across from Soldner's sculpture are a group of impressive lidded vessels by Jennifer Neff of Greeley. In the stoneware "Bronze Jar," Neff alters and distorts a thrown cylinder and tops it with a large sculptural lid with a heavy, slab-built handle. Such altered wheel-thrown vessels are seen throughout Colorado Clay. Some of the best, in addition to Neff's, are those by Englewood's Cheryl Crownover and Paul Rogers of Colorado Springs. Crownover gently forms her clay cylinders into sensuous shapes and finishes them with minimal staining, allowing the unadorned clay to show through. In "Figure Canister," a ceramic lidded jar takes the shape of a woman's torso. Rogers's raku vessels are more crisp and nearly architectural in feeling. In "Nazca Vessel," small squares of clay are mounted on the lid of the low bowl. Unlike Crownover, Rogers goes for a spectacular finish; in "Nazca Vessel," it's a delicious light-green reduction with black and beige at the bottom.

Soldner selected just one artist who works with traditional ceramic shapes unadorned by addition or alteration: Denver's Ted Fons, whose classical vases are seen at the entrance to Foothills' back gallery. In "Vessel," Fons creates an elegant and simply formed vase with a high waist and a broad collar. In contrast to the simple shape are the spectacular iridescent reduction effects he gets from the raku firing.

More expected from a juror like Soldner are the several artists working in abstract sculpture. These include some of the most familiar names in the show, including Maynard Tishler and Martha Daniels of Denver and Allen Bales of Lakewood.

The Tishler section is dominated by one of his classic truck sculptures, the wood-fired stoneware "Timberline Express," in which a green-glazed logging truck is being driven by a demon--pure Tishler. Daniels shows some of her newest work, a selection of gaudily toned sculptural vessels that reflect her interest in the modern city and robot imagery. These large, non-functional vessels of hand-built clay are heavily pierced and richly finished; some, like "Top of Africa," sport complicated painted decorations reminiscent of Renaissance-era Italian faience. Bales, meanwhile, is represented by both thrown raku vessels and slab-built raku wall reliefs. Both have astoundingly complicated finishes in which a white crackle is laid against various iridescent and metallic tones.

Though there's a world of difference--and a 45-minute drive--between Lino Tagliapietra at Pismo and Colorado Clay at Foothills, these exhibits have a lot in common. Each seeks to present craft as a form of art--and in that, each succeeds.

Lino Tagliapietra, through April 16 at Pismo Contemporary Art Glass, 235 Fillmore Street, 333-2879.

Colorado Clay Exhibition 1998, through May 10 at the Foothills Art Center, 809 15th Street, Golden, 279-3922.

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