Sunday, April 20, 2008

Sharp as Glass - Dale Chihuly


Dale Chihuly

I love the work of Dale Chihuly. The glass museum named for him is one of my favorite places to visit when we pass through Tacoma en route to Seattle. My friend, Sheryl and I spent an entire day there last year. These large blue sculptures are located along the walkway that leads from the museum to the contemporary gallery and glass blowing arena.

Dale Chihuly brought this interdisciplinary approach to the arts to the legendary Pilchuck School in Stanwood, Washington, which he cofounded in 1971 and served as its first artistic director until 1989. Under his guidance, Pilchuck has become a gathering place for international artists with diverse backgrounds. Over the years his studios, which include an old racing shell factory in Seattle called The Boathouse and now buildings in the Ballard section of the city and Tacoma, have become a mecca for artists, collectors, and museum professionals involved in all media.

Dale is most frequently lauded for revolutionizing the Studio Glass movement. However, his contribution extends well beyond the boundaries both of this movement and even the field of glass: his achievements have influenced contemporary art in general.

photo by Stacy Alexander

You will find his work all over the world. Chihuly’s practice of using teams has led to the development of complex, multipart sculptures of dramatic beauty that place him in the leadership role of moving blown glass out of the confines of the small, precious object and into the realm of large-scale contemporary sculpture.

A prolific artist whose work balances content with an investigation of the material's properties of translucency and transparency, Chihuly began working with glass at a time when reverence for the medium and for technique was paramount.

Influenced by an environment that fostered the blurring of boundaries separating all the arts, as early as 1967 Chihuly was using neon, argon, and blown glass forms to create room-sized installations of organic, freestanding, plantlike imagery. This one is located in the Clinton Library:

Stylistically over the past forty years, Chihuly's sculptures in glass have explored color, line, and assemblage.

Although his work ranges from the single vessel to indoor/outdoor site-specific installations, he is best known for his multipart blown compositions. These works fall into the categories of mini-environments designed for the tabletop as well as large, often serialized forms that are innovatively displayed in groupings on a wide variety of surfaces ranging from pedestals to bodies of natural water.

Masses of these blown forms also have been affixed to specially engineered structures that dominate large exterior or interior spaces.

Over the years Chihuly and his teams have created a wide vocabulary of blown forms, revisiting and refining earlier shapes while at the same time creating exciting new elements, such as his Fiori, all of which demonstrate mastery and understanding of glassblowing techniques.

Earlier forms, such as the Baskets, Seaforms, Ikebana, Venetians, and Chandeliers, from the late 1970s through the 1990s have been augmented since the early to mid-1990s with new blown elements. Chihuly and his teams primarily developed these while working in glass factories in France, Finland, Ireland, and Mexico. The resulting Reeds, Saguaros, Herons, Belugas, Seal Pups, and other forms are now juxtaposed with the earlier series, including Macchia, Niijima Floats, and Persians in lively new contexts.

Since the early 1980s, all of Chihuly's work has been marked by intense, vibrant color and by subtle linear decoration.

At first he achieved patterns by fusing into the surface of his vessels “drawings” composed of prearranged glass threads; he then had his forms blown in optic molds, which created ribbed motifs. He also explored in the Macchia series bold, colorful lip wraps that contrasted sharply with the brilliant colors of his vessels and architectural details such as this door:

Finally, beginning with the Venetians of the early 1990s, elongated, linear blown forms, a product of the glassblowing process, have become part of his vocabulary, resulting in highly baroque, writhing elements. In recent years Chihuly has experimented with Polyvitro to create new interpretations of some of his glass forms.

Chihuly’s work is strongly autobiographical. His fascination with abstracted flower forms, for him, reminiscent of his mother's garden in Tacoma, has been discussed in depth in the literature. Likewise, series such as his Seaforms, Niijima Floats, the Chandeliers, and more recently, the Boats allude to his childhood in Tacoma, Washington, marked by his love of the sea and his recognition of its importance to the economy of the Pacific Northwest.

Over the years the artist has created a number of memorable installation exhibitions. These installations confirm the artist's sensitivity to architectural context and his interest in the interplay of natural light on the glass that exploits its translucency and transparency.

A dominant presence in the art world, Dale Chihuly and his work have long provoked considerable controversy as part of the art/craft debate. However, with projects such as his recent garden installations in Kew and New York, there can be little doubt that his lasting contribution to art of our times is an established fact.

Of local interet, there is currently a Chihuly exhibition at the deYoung Museum in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park.

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Stacy Alexander