By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 11, 2003; Page WE53
"By Michael O'Sullivan, reprinted with permission from the Washington Post"
TIM TATE wants you to touch his art.
So what if the proprietors of Georgetown's Fraser Gallery, where an assortment of Tate's sculptural -- and, presumably, fragile -- glass is now on view don't agree? Tate insists that he very much wants visitors to view his work in "Seized Moments . . . Captured Memories" as "objects"; that is, things to be held as much as to behold. With that in mind, he was walking around the gallery one recent afternoon, removing several of his mouth-blown glass hearts and urn-like towers from their wall-mounted metal brackets and pedestals and, under the apprehensive eye of the young gallery assistant, forcing a cautious reporter to heft them like so many cheap paperweights.
The understandable hesitation goes beyond the works' seeming delicacy. They are not, for the record, as breakable as they look, and one could presumably drop one of the solid pieces on a carpeted floor without doing any damage, except perhaps to the floor. There is, however, a less material reason why you might not feel comfortable picking up Tate's art, and that lies in the nature of its roots.
For Tate's inspiration is, in a sense, funereal. The artist is probably best known for his series of "flaming hearts," brightly colored glass formed into the shape of the cardiac organ with what appears to be fire shooting out the top. Having evolved out of a single vessel he made to contain the ashes of his late mother, who died in 1999, several of them are on view at Fraser. Since then, Tate has been exploring the expressive power of that simple shape, both as a kind of psychic receptacle for memory and as an icon representing healing. Then there are Tate's jar forms, a newer series of faux "vessels." (Despite appearing to be vials or containers, none of Tate's objects allow access to the interior. "Can you get in them?," he asks rhetorically. "No. Is something hidden in them? Yes.") Suggestive not only of the canopic jars used by ancient Egyptians to hold entrails of embalmed corpses, they also evoke the containers of Barbicide antiseptic one finds in barber shops, an allusion to both religion and science -- to disease, on the one hand, but also to the belief systems that help us cope with it -- that is far from accidental. Shadowy forms can be barely glimpsed inside the thick blue glass, but what -- or who -- they are is not clear.
HIV-positive since the early 1980s, the 42-year-old artist says he has been living under a "sword of Damocles" for his entire adult life. Although he has now outlived two of his doctors, it is only very recently, with the advancement in medical treatment, that he has begun to feel as if what he calls his "death sentence" may have been lifted, or possibly just postponed.
To an art critic, especially to one raised in the Catholic church, Tate's symbolic vocabulary most obviously suggests the iconography of martyrdom. One work in a triptych called "Adaptations" is even wrapped in a crown of thorns. Specifically, they call to mind the so-called "sacred burning heart of Jesus," which has been compared in religious writing to a "loving furnace" in which the sins of the faithful are burned away. Raised by atheists, Tate denies that this was his inspiration -- he was more influenced, he says, by the eternal flame at the tomb of John F. Kennedy -- but he allows for all interpretations of his work, even the "incorrect" ones. To him, the work is less about any sense of martyrdom he may feel than about celebration and the healing power of beauty.
Tate's heart work is certainly nothing new to those who have been following his career of late, especially those who have seen his work at Renwick Gallery, which owns one of his pieces. "Seized Moments," however, shows Tate pushing himself in new directions. One especially autobiographical piece from this show, titled "Positive Progression" and consisting of a clear glass heart that seems to wither away into a crude clay stump, is especially fine. It isn't pretty by any means, as Tate's work usually is, but it sure is powerful.
Don't think he's gotten anything out of his system with this solo tour de force, though. "I'll never be done with the hearts," he says, pointing to the picture of one permanently inked on his forearm. "Look at me. It's tattooed on my arm, for God's sake." In his case, he points out that it oozes paint in lieu of blood. It could just as easily be molten glass.
TIM TATE: SEIZED MOMENTS . . . CAPTURED MEMORIES -- Through Wednesday at Fraser Gallery, 1054 31st St. NW. 202-298-6450. www.thefrasergallery.com. Open Monday-Friday noon to 3, Saturdays noon to 6. Free.
© 2003 The Washington Post Company