Baskets and Cylinders:
Dale Chihuly

Lee Hall
Craft Horizons
March/April 1979
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Art and technics both represent formative aspects of the human organism. Art stands for the inner and subjective side of man; all its symbolic structures are so many efforts to invent a vocabulary and a language by which man became able to externalize and project his inner states, and most particularly, give a concrete and public form to his emotions, his feelings, his intuitions of the meanings and values of life. The technics, on the contrary, develop mainly out of the necessity to meet and master the external conditions of life, to control the forces of nature and to expand the power and mechanical efficiency of man's own natural organs, on their practical and operational side. Though technics and art have at various periods been in a state of effective unity—so that the 5th-century Greeks, for example, used the word technics to apply both to fine art and utilitarian practice, to sculpture and stonecutting—today these two sides of culture have split wide apart.

—LEWIS MUMFORD
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Dale Chihuly's exhibition, "Baskets and Cylinders: Recent Glass," at the Renwick Gallery, Washington, D.C. (November 17, 1978-June 3), makes apparent this remarkable artist's synthesis of art and technics. His work heals the wounds that existed, in imagination or actuality, between art-as-symbol and craft-as-skill. In these glassworks, skill and image, together molten, breathed into shape are contained totally and peaceably. A renowned teacher as well as artist, Chihuly has been influenced by Harvey Littleton's efforts to bring the craft of glassworking into scale and technology for a studio.

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Now, Chihuly is a potent force in shaping the art glass of this age. Cylinders, baskets, blankets are the personal symbolic vocabulary, glass the vehicle or craft through which he finds and brings into public form "his emotions, his feelings, his intuitions of the meanings and values of life." Chihuly's glass—pure, clear, unequivocal—does not pose as something else, as glass in the service of an idea. Freed from utility by skill, it speaks the perceptions of an artist of singular intelligence.

Glass once stood with jewels and gems, with gold and silver, ornamenting religious and regal objects. Its 4,000-year history includes vessels and windows (useful and decorative); architectural monuments of great aesthetic and physical strength. Flexible and negotiable, glass flows through endless identities, accepts countless shapes, embodies numerous contours. Since the Industrial Revolution, glass has largely led a shelf life, holding liquids or storing foods, protecting wines and perfumes, showing labels, casting shadows. From assembly lines come the good blue bottles of country junk heaps, Depression glass, chipped family vases, returnable milk bottles. Broken windows, wavy panes of glass, and who could forget glass flowers, glass creatures, the glass eyes of dolls and stuffed bears?

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Studio glass is from the individual hand rather than from the assembly line. Chihuly's fingertips know all the intricacies and possibilities of glass; his mind contains and tumbles about restlessly images of other cultures, other objects. Born in Tacoma, Washington, in 1941, he earned a BA from the University of Washington, a MS from the University of Wisconsin, and a MFA from the Rhode Island School of Design. He has taught at the University of California at Berkeley, University of Utah, Institute of American Indian Art; he founded the Pilchuck Glass Center. Currently, he is head of the Glass Program at RISD. His work has been included in over 40 group and solo exhibitions since 1970, and he has demonstrated his techniques and lectured at the Royal College of Art, Philadelphia College of Art, Cleveland Art Institute, Alfred University, University of New Mexico, Cranbrook Academy of Art and elsewhere. Awarded Fulbright scholarships to study in Venice, supported with grants from the Tiffany Foundation, the State Council of Art in Rhode Island, the National Endowment for the Arts, Chihuly is a mature and successful artist, free to experiment as his sensibilities dictate. He need play to no audience as he finds the cadence of his own drummer.

In the Pacific Northwest, Chihuly moved in spaces and looked into distances that provided a strong vocabulary of shapes and spaces, of scale, of objects and tensions between them; of reference points in light and fog. He walked paths that the Indians had cut into the earth with their feet, he was their weaving and their totemic arts. In his work, these images appear, transformed, charged with memory and the conviction of intelligence.

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Cylinders, blankets and baskets suggest material totally different from glass. Their materials produce patterns both identifying and decorative. One reaches around the cylinder by hand and eye, identifying its metal or clay or plastic or human flesh, considering it as a unit entire or as a fragment of a longer extension. A blanket enfolds, unfolds, covers, uncovers, wraps, reveals: as it is called to cover various shapes, as it is pulled or tucked or tugged between the areas, as it sags and is stretched, it assumes the shapes of the forces moving it: its decorative pattern switches with the tensions of the blanket itself. Baskets, woven from grasses or fabrics or hides, carry patterns that signify meaning, proclaim decoration, honor tradition. They may or may not have handles and may be of many sizes. They may or may not retain their shape when empty. Art objects—those items cataloged and preserved in museums—generally offer other varieties of aesthetic experience. Chihuly's cylinders, baskets, blankets reflect the experiences of actual cylinders, actual baskets, actual blankets but defy anticipation. Surprises, unanticipated details, little revelations of humor or anxiety suffuse his work. He grants glass limited freedom, allows it to reject some portion of his own shaping movements and breath. Consider glass as a skin: the markings, tracings, drawings enclosed in Chihuly's glass are not merely scratched or painted onto surfaces. Embedded, they define form and explicate shape itself.

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Chihuly groups his works according to function and pattern remembered and transformed from other classes of objects: cylinders, baskets, blankets. His colors suggest precious minerals and belong to glass as a semiprecious material. Finally, his glass forms are beckoning, sensual, of touch and of the eye. Their eros, breath; they are blown and held at some distance from the shaping artist—an analogy with the creation of humankind as set forth in Genesis.

©1979 Craft Horizons

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