Museum  January 5, 2021  Chandra Noyes

Beth Lipman's Elegy in Glass

Photo by Jenna Bascom

Beth Lipman, Laid (Time-) Table with Cycads, 2015.

At the Museum of Arts and Design (MAD), Beth Lipman’s sumptuous feasts in glass glisten under the gallery lights. For over twenty years, Lipman has created impressive smorgasbords of glass, composed of dozens of hand-blown objects that populate tabletops. Now, a mid-career survey at MAD, Beth Lipman: Collective Elegy, is celebrating her accomplishments with a new installation.

Photo by Jenna Bascom

Beth Lipman, Laid (Time-) Table with Cycads, 2015.

The focus of the show is the large-scale tablescape Laid (Time-) Table with Cycads (2015) which recreates the prehistoric world in miniature. Cycads are the plants with large fronds that explode from the piece, a prehistoric species that still exists today. In addition to the flora that has pre-dated human life, the tabletop is filled with goblets, dishware, and more modern artifacts of the Anthropocene era. Through this assemblage, Lipman connects our present with the past, reminding us that this pre-human history has informed every aspect of our daily lives and that we are still very much connected to this world, however removed we may seem.

Lipman’s tabletop assemblages, like Laid (Time-) Table with Cycads and the smaller Sphenophyllum and Chains (2019), reference the vast tradition of still lifes in art history, and in particular the sumptuous vanitas and banquet scenes particular to the Dutch Golden Age. These scenes were laden with symbolism, each food and peculiar detail (like the presence of mice or monkeys) replete with a specific meaning. Reminders of the fleeting nature of our lives and the material wealth we may fill it with, when rendered in glass, the scenes take on a new dimension, their translucence giving them a ghostly, and certainly fragile, feel.

Photo by Jenna Bascom

Installation view of Beth Lipman: Collective Elegy at the Museum of Arts and Design, New York (September 24, 2020–April 4, 2021).

Her work has long been a critique of material culture and the capitalism that fuels it, and as Lipman turns to the prehistoric, she drives this point further home. By comparing our current social values, as reflected by the objects that represent them, with the vast history of the earth before humankind, we can see just how short our own lives are, and how inconsequential the physical stuff we so identify with is. 

In a new project on view in Collective Elegy, Lipman creates a different kind of domestic scene. House Album (2020) turns a living room into a life-sized two-dimensional scrapbook, flattening the home and adhering it to the wall. An ongoing series that changes each time it is displayed, Lipman describes the project as, “a selective portrait of the United States that explores issues surrounding agency, identity, and memory.”

Photo by Jenna Bascom

Beth Lipman, House Album, 2020.

As her thematic scope broadens, Lipman’s scenes in glass and mixed media only become more enthralling. Using tabletops beckons the viewer to sit down and engage with the scene on an intimate level. With each detail impressively rendered in glass, we can’t help but explore the landscape before us, finding new treasures tucked away in the complex compositions. Collective Elegy shows the power of the tools Lipman has developed and continues to evolve.

About the Author

Chandra Noyes

Chandra Noyes is the former Managing Editor for Art & Object.

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