A Place of Wonder
Essay by Jeanne Koles
It is our tendency, in an attempt to understand an artist, to contextualize him or her within certain frameworks, whether they be of medium, time and place, or style. We lapse into simplified definitions in order to better grasp an artist’s motivations and better appreciate the person’s vision. These habits have their intellectual purpose but fall short in explaining our visceral response in the presence of art .. Dale Chihuly is an artist who cannot be wrapped in a box. He is an intuitive thinker, a citizen of his imagination, the chief of his own creative tribe. Cultural assimilations shift effortlessly, and his artwork adjusts with facility according to his inspiration. He is educated in global and historical trends and looks to certain artistic forebears for creative guidance. But he is not limited by borders, expectations, conventions, or—given the unpredictability when glass meets fire—even by the edges of his own mind.
When the first glass chandeliers were illuminated by candle three hundred years ago, their makers realized that the simple refraction of light off glass produced a sumptuous effect. Chihuly’s Chandeliers amplify the light’s dance through uncommon scale, shape, and color. Cascading nests of serpentine elements in Sunrise Topaz Chandelier reflect in a conflagration of golden reds and oranges, while turbulent shadows climb the walls like wild, tentacled ivy. A single element and tone is repeated hundreds of times in Clear Platinum Hornet Chandelier,(above), aggrandizing the elemental through repetition. An infinite collection of individual moments of reflection explodes into a buzzing optical hive.
The Ikebana series evolved as a foil to the Venetian series, a set of vases that were never meant to evoke functionality or the beauty of use. These vessels were inspired by a visit to a private collection of Venetian Art Deco glass from the 1920s and 1930s, which Chihuly described as “odd, with garish colors. Most were classical shapes with beautiful handles and other unusual additions.” Instead of containing nature, the canonical vaselike body of Clear Venetian with Indigo Flowers becomes the nucleus around which the exuberant flowers flourish. Instead of a vase with conventional handles, Magenta Piccolo Venetian with Fuchsia Leaves is a bulb enveloped by flaming leaves, reaching up and licking the sky. The Venetians are unconventional in their use of ornamentation, and also stunning in the treatment of the glass itself. The effervescent Silvered Dusty Turquoise Piccolo Venetian with Sapphire is a combination of dappled and striated areas of disparate pigments, flecked with glinting metal.
Chihuly’s Cylinders use an economy of form to privilege design and allow the surface of the glass to become a canvas. Using a technique he calls “pick-up drawing,” his team first creates a detailed glass drawing out of hundreds of glass threads and places that drawing on a steel surface called a marvering table. The Cylinder is then blown in the traditional way. Just after the final gather of glass, the Cylinder is rolled over the drawing, fusing it to the surface. Inspired by Native American textiles, the black surfaces tremble with dynamism. Swirling orbs overlay whipping strands and frame enigmatic symbols, sometimes gathering just loosely enough to form the image of something recognizable.
For Chihuly, drawing is not limited to surface decoration but is an art in and of itself, both independent of and reciprocal with the glass work. Chihuly’s works on paper, which began in the 1970s as a means of communication—illustrating his ideas to glassblowers, or to collaborators who spoke in foreign tongues—became energetic interpretations of form, color, and mark making.
These Drawings celebrate the limitlessness of Chihuly’s creative imagination, containing forms without edges, sweeping gestures leaping off the page, and designs that have achieved sovereignty from the glass objects they were meant to decorate or inspire. His discovery of Golden liquid acrylics, sold in plastic squeeze bottles, allowed him to experiment more freely with the application of the material and precipitate effects ranging from circles to splashes, dots to lines. Timothy Anglin Burgard, author of the essay in The Art of Dale Chihuly, wrote, “Emulating [Jackson] Pollock’s famous drip and pour techniques . . . , Chihuly squirts, pours, and drips these paints onto a paper or canvas support laid on the ground . . . and then spreads them with brushes, brooms, and his own hands, thus giving physical form to his stream-of-consciousness aesthetic.”
Dale Chihuly’s oeuvre is as much a cultural journey as it is a passport into the world of his imagination. The Persians resonate with the notion that Chihuly does not emulate, he creates. The Persians are so named not because of any direct connection with a place but because they evoke the alluring romanticism associated with orientalism. Sienna Yellow Persian Set with Flame Orange Lip Wraps is a billowing sea creature, steadfast despite its gossamer shell, simultaneously so natural it feels as if it might take a breath and so fantastical we know it must be art. Chihuly defies neat categorization and cannot be pinned down by tidy art historical parlance. This creative freedom yields a varied and awe-inspiring body of work—allowing viewers to escape their own box and venture into a borderless place of wonder.