Enriching his art-glass practice with unusual techniques, Ethan Stern creates objects of luminous beauty.
“For a while I was in denial of the characteristics of glass,” says Seattle-based artist Ethan Stern. That’s a pretty bold statement from someone who has spent a 15-year career working exclusively in the medium, but it’s less a confession than an expression of the intense striving that has constantly moved his work forward. Stern is referring to the way his earliest bodies of work used extremely dense and deeply colored glass to convey an opaque effect. “Starting from a ceramic background,” he says, “I wanted to shield my viewer from the naturalistic aspects, the shine, the transparency and clarity that glass has right out of the gate. So I tried to work with glass that absorbed the light. Now I’m admitting to myself that the glass wants to be transparent.”
Stern’s latest series, called Crosscut, consists of translucent semicircular, almond-shaped, or ovoid pieces of colored glass that are carved with deep linear incisions, like furrows in a plowed field. Some parts of the glass are left uncarved, so you’re seeing the incisions, and then you’re seeing other incisions on the other side of the piece, as refracted through the glass. Where two bands of incisions meet they form grids, which have a texture of their own. In some of the pieces, the little squares of the grids are left the same color as the rest of the object, while in others the squares are colored a different, usually complementary, color. The whole effect is a combination optical puzzle and object for contemplation.
Stern says the Crosscut series was “directly inspired” by cut glass, of the kind traditionally used for luxury tableware. This is interesting, in that the worlds of cut glass and art glass have always apart and didn’t talk to each other. “When I started to do research,” Stern recalls, “I found that the history really lives in the industrial glass process, in the master cutters who worked in the factory setting for generations. I started thinking about how my experience contrasts with theirs.” He immersed himself in the American tradition of completely handmade “brilliant” cut glass, which has roots dating back to the 18th century but was at its peak from around 1876 to the First World War. In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, the industry was in decline and cut-glass factories were shutting down. Stern found two of the few remaining master cutters, one from Ireland and one from Poland, who both worked at the now-defunct Lenox Crystal factory in Pennsylvania. They taught him how to use the special lathes with which they cut and faceted the glass; these techniques were quite different from the so-called “cold-working” he had learned from his professors in art school.
In search of his own equipment, Stern located a classic 1920s lathe from a factory in Austria that closed, and has also put together a sizable collection of old cutting wheels. “I saw old photos of this machine with its wheels, and it ended up becoming a link between me and history. That’s very important to me.” Not that he sees himself as an epigone of the cut-glass masters of bygone days—far from it. “There are aspects of cut glass that I don’t like,” he says, “such as the fact that the design is very busy and over the top, every millimeter is cut and polished and reflecting light and creating a prismatic effect. My aesthetic is more Asian, sophisticated and quiet, like Japanese ceramics, almost minimal.” Contrasting his cut-glass pieces with the functional ones created at places like Lenox, he has described them as being “not vessels to hold things, but containers to hold light.”
Likewise, Stern’s method of working with the cut-glass equipment differs from that used in the factories. The traditional cut-glass makers “would hold the piece of glass above the wheel and look up through it at the cut happening on the opposite side of the glass,” he explains. “I look down at where the wheel and the glass connect. I’m essentially drawing with the wheel.” That makes it sound more low-key than it really is—when Stern is working with the lathe, he holds a 15- to 25-pound chunk of glass in a bear hug and presses it against the spinning wheel. With an apron and face mask as protection, he seems to be engaged in a primeval wrestling match of man versus machine.
Stern didn’t start out working with glass; at Alfred University in upstate New York, where he graduated in 2001, his original medium of choice was ceramics, and he also devoted a lot of time to metal sculpture. As a result, his first efforts in glass closely resemble ceramics. They are opaque or close to it, in forms that allude to vessels, and feature a lot of abstract surface decoration. His first major departure from this style was his Lunar Light series, in which he began to explore the creative potential of interactions between opacity and transparency. In these pieces, each side is carved so that half is smooth and transparent and the other half is engraved with a dense network of very thin lines. On the other side, it is carved the opposite way. “When you look through it,” says Stern, “it exposes a very thin slice of light that passes through the center; it controls the light and pushes it through the piece in a certain way. As you walk around, that sliver of light becomes larger or smaller like the waning or waxing of the moon.” A somewhat later series is called Coastline, and in these works Stern uses the wheel to create an undulating line, almost fractal-like in its complexity, that divides the glass into two regions. While not representational, the curves seem like they could be the edges of continents, and abstract topography becomes imaginary cartography. Here Stern is using the wheel very freely, to paint in glass rather than carve precise grooves as in the Crosscut works.
The very latest iteration of the Crosscut concept is a series of colorless pieces that Stern calls Clear Cut. With this literally crystal clarity, the artist is hewing closer to American brilliant cut glass than he ever has before. But there’s a critical difference, which you can see especially in a piece titled Stacks (2017), in which short incised lines are scattered across a completely transparent smooth surface. Stern explains: “With the Coastline series, I just draw on the glass and then cut out the pattern or images. It evolves as I work. But with the Crosscut pieces, there’s no room for that. The lines have to be drawn a certain distance apart. In Stacks, I’m trying to get back to that place where I can be a little bit more free, trying to make it even but with some of that wabi-sabi feeling to it, as well. There’s a tension in my personality, in which I go back and forth between being a total square and letting go.”
Works by Ethan Stern are available from:
- Austin Art Projects – Palm Desert, CA
- Habatat Galleries – Royal Oak, MI
- Hawk Galleries – Columbus, OH
- Montague Gallery – San Francisco, CA
- Sandra Ainsley Gallery – Toronto, ON, Canada
- Schantz Galleries – Stockbridge, MA
- Traver Gallery – Seattle, WA
By John Dorfman