BRILLIANT, impossible color. Refractions of light that dazzle the eye and tantalize the mind. Forms that push the edges of art glass beyond anything made anywhere in the world. This is the work of Dale Chihuly and his circle of associates, assistants, and collaborators.
A fabulous exhibition at the Detroit Institute of Art (DIA), "Glass Environments, Dale Chihuly: Installations 1964 - 1992" (through Aug. 15), is enough to make crying babies gurgle with glee and enthrall children and adults alike.
The viewer is greeted by a huge chandelier in which fat little glass "putti" (little boy figures resembling Renaissance cupids or cherubs) cling joyfully to streaming, twisting, curving wands of glass in cobalt blue and clear, drizzled with gold.
Lilies and flames of glass shoot out in all directions in a sinuous riot of virtuoso glassmaking. Light shines on it from an exterior source, not out from it in the usual chandelier fashion.
But then, nothing about this exhibit is standard. The entire experience proves uncommonly colorful, lively, and beautiful.
As organizing visionary among his colleagues, Chihuly clings to the ancient craft of glass vesselmaking and many of even his most experimental forms are vessels. But these vases, bowls, cups, etc., have been pushed so far that they have crossed the lines of ancient craft and crept up on modern art.
The "Detroit Chandelier," made specifically for this exhibit, introduces a variety of themes that recur in the following rooms. One cannot help but be impressed by the aesthetic connection of ideas from room to room. Chihuly returns again and again to ideas, building on them, pushing them further. That's why his work is cutting edge - the parameter keeps moving back.
Many of the galleries have been painted a dark gray. Most of the illumination in each of them consists of low-voltage spotlights directed at the glass objects. The effect in each case is highly dramatic and involving. In one room, Chihuly's famous "Sea Forms" appear to float in a dark case. The only light in the room emanates from the "aquarium," drawing the viewer to it like a magnet.
Another gallery contains the "Niijima Floats" - the largest blown-glass objects in the world (some are a yard wide), says curator Bonita La Marche. These have been arranged on crushed glass by DIA's in-house architect, Lou Gauci, as if washed up on a beach.
The viewer walks through a winding path, lined with the floats, in the gallery space. Each of the large spheres has been emblazoned with swirls, drips, splatters, and strokes of color rolled onto the glass while it is still molten. Marbles for a giant. They weigh heavily on the eye, unlike those liquid forms that seem always ready to take off - the gigantic plates of glass looking like airy, bright blossoms, or the fragile-looking sea forms, delicately colored and (apparently) light as air.
The floats remind us of the weighty nature of glass - it takes 12 people to blow one of these orbs, taking turns handing off the heavy pipe to each other. `Venetians'
The floats push the glass-blower's art far. Pushing it further still are the "Venetians." Harking back to the ancient art of Italy, five large vessels resembling huge vases or bottles are among Chihuly's greatest work, even by his own standards. Around each of these tall vessels, variously colored vines and leaves have been twisted.
Exaggerated in size, color, and form, the "Venetians" surprise and astonish us - and even amuse us with their excessive splendor.
The secrets of the Venetian glass masters have been shared with this American master and these forms are as much about the glass-blowing process, the ancient art revisited in bold contemporary terms, as they are about sinuous form and brilliant color.
The "Ikebana" series, named after the Japanese custom of placing a flower arrangement and painted scroll in a special niche to honor a guest, seem to incorporate ideas from both the "Venetians" and the "Niijima Floats" series.
The bulbous-base forms support elaborate organic glass flora. These have been placed in niches with neutral white walls and are lit from above with spots. The Ikebana act like prisms - the play of light through the glass on the walls (patterns of prismatic color and light shadow) becomes a significant and exhilarating part of the experience.
The "Persian Perogala" carries the issue of glass shadows further still. The viewer walks through a specially constructed long narrow hall, painted white. Overhead, the glass ceiling holds hundreds of Chihuly forms in various colors, arranged to cast long, deep, beautiful patterns on the walls.
"Yes, [the reflections of light] are a very important part of it," Chihuly said in a recent interview. "It is always a balancing act, how much attention to give to the shadow and how much to give to the glass itself, because you can get the reflection more interesting than the glass. Now, that may be OK, but you have to determine if that's what you want."
The feeling of the "Persian Perogala" is remarkably warm and otherworldly. Walking through it is a lot like the experience of a motion picture rather than a static work of art (you are the camera moving through the scene). When the viewer emerges from this 24-foot tunnel and looks back, the light shadows make a perfect fairyland, a jeweled cave, or a science-fiction runway. As Bryan Ohno, a Chihuly assistant, puts it, "Glass gets its life through light."
The Detroit exhibit is the third stop for the traveling exhibition - it started in Seattle and then moved to Cincinnati. In each museum, the show becomes site-specific, and though the premise is the same, the forms are arranged differently, added to or subtracted from to make a new experience. The Detroit show is best characterized by grand drama worked out in collaboration between Chihuly and Gauci.
"This is the first exhibition in which each series was handled as an individual series in its own right," Gauci says. "Each piece has its own setting where you can look at the development of the ideas. They really are not chronological, but ideological. I was keen on developing a sequence of spaces and a sequence of experiences. Each of the experiences is quite different. Each room has its own drama. People can stop and look at [the work] without being bombarded with too much."
"Glass has always been a team sport," curator La Marche says. Chihuly loves working with other people, she says, and no longer blows glass himself, but like a film director, works with other artists to fulfill his vision.
In a video made about Chihuly's techniques, the artist says, "Creative people like to play. Out of play comes conversation. Out of conversation, a question everyone will try to answer."
"When artists come here [to Chihuly's studio, called "The Boathouse"]," says Ohno, "they execute his ideas. The demand technically is so great, only the best glass artists in the country come here. The facilities are state of the art - so the environment is very attractive. The only way to get better at glass blowing is to work continuously." Tradition of teamwork
"It is interesting, the different take we have on how an artist is supposed to work today," Chihuly says. "I think the Renaissance masters had another viewpoint about what an artist did." The Old Masters had workshops, too, educating their assistants and working with them to make the greatest paintings they could. They, too, had others execute their ideas.
"I find it enjoyable and stimulating to work with people. Working alone all my life, it's just not my style. I'm sure that one of the great things about making movies is working with people.
"The way I work is pretty fluid," he says. "We rely on fire and gravity and things spinning open with centrifugal force."
Chihuly makes drawings in wildly expressive gestures and brilliant colors, which inspire rather than outline the sculptures.
His work is fluid and organic in nature, with persistent and delightful references to art history. The putti, the vessels, and the vines, flowers, fruit, and shell forms, for instance, all hark back to the distant past. And his method of working with other artists, too, is as old as art itself. We are used to it in the theater and film, but the visual arts have long been the romantic bastion of the individual working in isolation. Chihuly's method is somehow cheering.
Chihuly's influence is felt among glass artists around the world. When Chihuly first came to Seattle, the city was just beginning to develop its art scene. Now it is the Mecca of the glass-blower's art in the US (second only to Venice in the world), with 40 "hot shops" (glass studios) and Chihuly's own Pilchuk School, where glass artists of all skill levels work alongside each other every summer. Chihuly has brought the great masters of Venetian and Czechoslovakian art glass together to teach, to share a ncient secrets, and to experiment with new forms.
"Chihuly is the most important glass artist working in the world," La Marche says. "He is very supportive of other artists, and he has single-handedly brought art glass to the awareness of the populace. He saw the possibilities of glass being made into sculptural forms."