Dale Chihuly’s Persians:
Acts of Survival
In his elegant yet strangely disturbing series of Persians, Dale Chihuly courts the miraculous. Each element making up the Persians is intensely conceived: The pieces combine the delicacy of threaded Venetian glass, which Chihuly learned in 1968 in Murano, Italy, with the distinctive woven patterns that are the hallmark of his Baskets and Sea Forms. But unlike these earlier series, which are compact displays of fecund shapes that appear ready to propagate still other forms, the Persians suggest found treasure. They call to mind the mysterious clusters of ancient Greek pots in Etruscan tombs that have survived grave robbers, or the haunting juxtapositions of remnants of standing walls, overturned columns, and rubble that characterize ancient ruins. The compositions of the Persians look as if they occurred by happenstance, while the fragility of glass itself lends a special poignancy to these pieces because they appear to have survived time and pillaging.
The individual elements in the Persians still exude life. The elasticity of each form manifests glass’s real character as a frozen liquid, as molecules held in suspension. And the life force imbuing Chihuly’s art makes it sculpture rather than mere bibelots. The individual elements composing the Persians simulate the rhythms and forces of life: Their variously shaped orifices are dilated; the necks of bottles, which resemble ancient perfume containers, stretch forth with wondrous elasticity; and huge tazzas, still attached to the glass stems, which held them to pontil rods while they were being formed, have gracefully succumbed to gravity, and consequently lean, twist, and turn. The pontil stems not only point to process—a concept of great importance to many modern artists —but they also emphasize the original centers of the individual pieces before the gaffer and Chihuly, in the last stage of creating them, deflected their course and made them acknowledge gravity’s force. The pontil stem, then, underscores the internal tensions in each of these individual pieces, which have dramatically turned away from their original centers. The Persians are less related to abundant still lifes in the manner of the Sea Forms and more akin to casually displayed shards of ancient cultures that exude the life of distant times and places. Precariousness is underscored in some Persians that droop over the edges of pedestals and in others where pieces propped against each other contrast with isolated, delicate bottles that stand miraculously erect.
For some time Dale Chihuly has been fascinated with ancient glass. Unlike Louis Comfort Tiffany, who earlier in this century attempted to recreate the patina of time in his Favrile glass that was shaped to resemble water lilies and trailing vines, Chihuly does not attempt to make the surfaces of his pieces appear weathered and, therefore, ancient. Rather, he goes back to certain Near Eastern forms that he then pulls out of shape, so that they look as if they had been transformed by some immanent force. Chihuly does not use the colors of ancient glass, even though the new oxbloods and opalescent whites in which he originally conceived the series suggest an exotic world, an ambiance that is reinforced in other pieces in the series by intense blues, chrome yellows, and oranges.
The Persians were made in a new workshop called the “glass lab” that Chihuly established last year not far from his Buffalo Studio near Seattle’s downtown. He set up the glass lab so that he could work on a regular basis with a small crew and not be totally dependent on the larger team that he pulls together several times a year at Pilchuck, the Rhode Island School of Design, or at the studios of other glassblowers, such as that of his former teacher Harvey Littleton. The smaller workshop, with its full-time crew under the direction of gaffer Martin Blank, has given Chihuly the opportunity and flexibility to experiment freely, and the Persians, which are generally smaller and more densely decorated than any prior series, are the result of this experimentation. Chihuly has been able to indulge his fascination with elaborate threading patterns to create basket weaves, waffled designs, and combed decorations. Some of the individual pieces making up the Persians look almost like Waterford cut glass, so intense are the waffled designs, even through relief cutting has never been part of Chihuly’s repertoire.
To name a series “Persian” at this time could suggest a reference to certain political realities. This title provides an important frame for the series; it imbues it with the romance of ancient Persia, which Iran’s new Islamic Republic is now rejecting. Chihuly’s loosely assembled pieces of glass suggest the precarious position of Persian culture in the modern world. “Persia” connotes a special and distant realm of refinement and luxury, a place where mathematics, calligraphy, walled gardens, rich carpets, mystical love poetry, and elaborately decorated, finely blown glass vessels were created and respected. Persia was located on the ancient silk route along which caravans traveled to and from China with spices, porcelain, silk, and new ideas. It was a crossroads between East and West, a seat of culture as well as a transmitter of concepts.
When Chihuly entitles a series “Persians,” he draws upon a number of associations that refer to Persia as opposed to contemporary Iran. The delicacy and fragility of his glass as well as its tentative placement is an impression of this world: The series is like some wonderful perfume blown across the great central Iranian desert. The pieces allude to romance, mystery, an ancient world, and its survival in the present. These works may represent a new orientalism, but not idle exoticism or mere longing for the past, for there is a life force present, which overcomes any suggestion of blind nostalgia—their romantic sentiments exist as vital remnants of another time, as fragrant and significant scents of a great civilization’s past flowering.
One might, however, still wonder if this reference to Persia is only exotic trimming for this artist who is a native of Tacoma, Washington. Could we not write off his endeavor as precious, an another case of a creative individual who is more in love with art than with life? Perhaps we could, except for the fact that these pieces do manifest a healthy respect for the life force: They beguile and entrance and in the process convince us that they partake of a quality of life that we wish to understand more fully.
Chihuly’s involvement with Persia might be more understandable if we look closely at his background and recognize that the poetic evocation of loss in the Persians has a parallel in his own life. During his teenage years, he experienced the profound difficulty of losing within a year-and-a-half both his older brother, who was training to become a pilot, and his father. These deaths impressed on him the precariousness of life and the need to hold onto the past and remember former pleasures. In his glass, this acceptance of life’s fatal consequences is apparent in dilated openings, pulsating shapes, and forms acquiescing to the inevitability of gravity.
At the same time, Chihuly’s mother had to assume new responsibilities, but she continued to tend their large flower garden, which abounded in lush and richly colored blossoms. The range of feelings Chihuly experienced about death, life, and the transitory but incredible beauty of flowers from his mother’s garden is important to his art. In all of his work, balance is tentative, suggesting the precariousness of existence. This is true even when somewhat mitigated by the one or two large, comforting and enveloping forms that serve as “supports” for the Baskets and Sea Forms.
The interest in reclaiming and honoring the transient endows Chihuly’s work with a special poignancy. In reaching beyond current harsh realities to the beauty that comes before— to the period in Middle Eastern civilization that manifested the living breath of culture—the artist’s evocation of ancient Persia creates an aesthetic equivalent of his own life.
One can point to the Carpaccio painting of St. George and the Dragon in the Scuola degli Schiavoni, Venice, which Chihuly identifies as a source for the Persians, and say that the story and composition may serve as an organizing mythological principal for his series. The dragon may well symbolize recurring concerns about human loss, which are underscored in the painting by the dead bodies strewn across the landscape. Aspects of this dragon appear in some Persians in the spiky silhouettes that abstractly reiterate its wings. Like the painting, the Persians are both disturbing and yet exquisite, elegant yet emotionally moving.
Another personal point of reference that has a bearing on the Persians as well as on all of Chihuly’s work is the artist’s constant proximity to the sea. As a child, Chihuly was particularly close to the ocean. He and his family would go on outings where he collected sea shells, he saw grandiose views of the water daily en route to school, and he grew up with the idea that the sea was the great provider to the numerous fishing boats in the area. This positive feeling for the ocean is central to his overall compositions, which appear to be buoyed up by some invisible sea, and also to the individual forms comprising them. These forms seem to take on the convolutions of sea shells as well as the complex variegated colors of fish, shells, coral, and various underwater plants. Related to the ocean are the magnificent sunsets over the Tacoma bay, which are important to Chihuly’s work. His preference for glowing, radiating colors no doubt develops out of the childhood ritual of regularly accompanying his mother to watch the setting sun.
All these environmental influences inform the Persians, but central to the series is the idea of retrieval. More than with any other works, including even the Baskets, which were inspired by a group of stacked and broken North American Indian baskets in a storeroom of the Washington State Historical Society, there is present the idea of reclamation. As mentioned earlier, most Baskets and Sea Forms are contained in generous bowls that hold carefully balanced elements and transform them into members of a family. But the elements making up the Persians do not form a reassuring whole. Although all the parts are related through intriguing interplays of color and texture, individual elements can be categorized as one of a number of clearly distinguished shapes. And added to this deliberate lack of unity is the way Chihuly has casually stacked and placed the various parts so that they appear unstable. In this way the artist establishes a new discordant tone to imply that the survival of the Persians is of greater importance than any overall unity they might manifest. One might say, then, that the Sea Forms and Baskets are concerned with an ecological balance, while the Persians are involved with preservation. The former group develops out of a single environment—they represent a single world view—while the latter bespeak of various currents and influences and exist at the crossroads of differing cultures and ideas.
In his new Persians, Chihuly gives voice to the accidental and serendipitous nature of life as against his earlier series that emphasized a cohesive life force. Existence, as the Persians suggest, is always tentative and precarious, always something to be fought and won…at least momentarily.
From the exhibition catalog Chihuly Persians, Dia Art Foundation, Bridgehampton, New York, 1988.
Also by Robert Hobbs:
Reflections on Chihuly's Macchia, Chihuly alla Macchia,, 1993>
Chihuly's Macchia, Dale Chihuly: objets de verre, 1986