This morning I was among the scrum of the region’s cultural media elite to get our peepers on the Chihuly exhibit at the VMFA, as well as the man himself, Dale Chihuly, Seattle's glass master.
Since August, a preview of his forthcoming work, Red Reeds, enlivened the pool that angles on the western side of the museum. Though it looks terrific in the day, seeing the light hit the pieces at night is marvelous. Inside the galleries, eight separate sets of examples of his personal creativity and his team’s craftsmanship are on glorious, Technicolor view.
Besides Red Reeds, the most visible example of Team Chihuly’s work is Blue Ridge Chandelier, made for a specific space in the VMFA's stairwell foyer where the big rabbit used to reside. Like much of his work, a casual glance may yield pleasant enough sensations, but as good art should, a prolonged experience with the shapes, textures and colors provides reward. You see something different every time.
And for the chandelier, there’s plenty to observe: It’s 18 feet long, it's made of 1,000 pieces and it weighs in at 3,000 pounds. That’s about the same size, though lighter, than the Byrd Theatre’s Czechoslovakian crystal chandelier.
There’s another important distinction here, too. Chihuly is credited with freeing glass from its association as a utilitarian craft — as in Louis Comfort Tiffany, who in 2010 also enjoyed a big VMFA show. Splendid, gorgeous but providing an architectural function, Chihuly's chandelier hangs near a trio of Tiffany church windows. From the late 1960s on, the artist has challenged ideas of how glass can be used in art — and as art. He used ancient techniques in a new approach. The year 2012 marks the 50th anniversary of the studio-glass movement, marking Harvey K. Littleton's founding of the studio-glass curriculum at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Chihuly worked on a commercial fishing boat off Alaska to earn money to go there and study with Littleton. (An exhibit of Littleton’s work will be presented at the Visual Arts Center, Nov. 9 to Jan.13, 2013.)
There’s an ooh-and-ahh factor in Chihuly’s work that calls to mind the reaction of crowds to pyrotechnical displays. His art is fireworks in glass.
Chihuly explained that for a massive undertaking like Laguna Torcello, made for the VMFA gallery, while the piece is assembled for control in his workshop, parts go “where it feels right.” He joked about installing a piece at the White House for a millennium exhibition there, when Hillary Clinton asked him if he numbered the individual components. The eye-patched, wild-haired Chihuly chortled, “Do I look like the kind of guy who numbers the pieces?”
The dreamy Ikebana and Float Boats; the mollusk-esque Macchia; and the Northwestern Indian-textiles-influenced Tabac each possess their separate characters. While they are produced by a team of 15 workers in Chihuly’s hot shop, they aren’t mass-produced. These are individual pieces made by real people.
(You can read my interview with the artist and watch a video of his glass works in action here )
Tickets for the exhbition are $20; $16 for seniors, students with valid ID and groups of 10 or more. It's free for members. For more information, visit the VMFA's site or call 340-1405.