swept away
Swept Away By a Show of Beauty
William Zimmer
New York Times
15 November 1998

Right now, the New Britain Museum of American Art, a large but plain-spoken converted house, and the Bellagio, the $1.8 billion casino cum art gallery that just opened in Las Vegas, each have a share of Dale Chihuly.

The glass artist has made a huge chandelier for Bellagio's lobby. His presence in New Britain is surely a quieter one, an exhibition of sculptures with the group title ''Seaforms'' that were made between 1981 and 1995.

But in their own right the ''Seaforms'' must be as breathtaking as the chandelier. Mr. Chihuly doesn't fashion anything that isn't beautiful, and if a viewer takes beauty to be one of the central aims of art, these sculptures are paragons and above criticism. This is a show to be swept away by.

Mr. Chihuly, like so many contemporary mainstays of American culture, is a product of Seattle. He was born there in 1941, and studied interior design at the University of Washington and sculpture at the University of Wisconsin and at the Rhode Island School of Design.

He traveled extensively in Europe, where he met glass masters, and in 1971 established an innovative art school on a former tree farm near Seattle. It grew into the Pilchuck Glass School, which has become one of the major schools in the world for fabricating glass.

Wall labels indicate which few of the pieces bear Mr. Chihuly's hidden signature, meaning that he was active in their creation, but the viewer readily adapts to the idea that this art is a team effort. The factory method has been the traditional way of making artistic glass.

But there is a unified look to the pieces: they are for the most part bowl-like shells derived from baskets, the baskets woven by the Indians of the Northwest. The containers are transmuted into forms with undulating openings that suggest not only scalloping but also the movement of water itself.

Though the works are dazzling they are installed in a darkened gallery with a spotlight on each one emphasizing both its transparence and coloration—they also are conducive to meditation.

They represent and embody universal forces, because their creation involved the four hallowed elements: air, earth, fire and water.

Actually making the pieces involves the first three, but Mr. Chihuly insures that water is given its share by always relating his works to that element. This isn't surprising given his being around water most of his life (In his youth he worked for a summer as a commercial fisherman.)

While the ''Seaforms'' are endowed with a hallowed quality, they also possess a sleekness that is quite contemporary. Most of them have titles that identify the coloration of the body of the piece, along with the contrasting color of the rim, which is referred to as the ''lip wrap.'' If this sounds like a new product that one might see advertised at a cosmetics counter, the reference might be intentional, to give the sculpture a popular social reference.

Although the ''Seaforms'' were made over a 14-year period, a viewer, at least one not trained in the particulars of blown glass, cannot really detect a progression. Again, the work seems anti-art historical and more like a natural occurrence. As in nature, the linear patterning of the forms is often regular, in parallel bands that circle the bowl, but when a viewer thinks he or she has been comfortably seduced by the visual harmonies, Mr. Chihuly will break them with a entrancing contrast, the appearance of freely splattered color, for example.

Viewers don't easily tire of examining and circumnavigating these sculptures, for in addition to the outer shape as the focus on interest, the basket-like capability of Mr. Chihuly's concept is often emphasized. Inside many pieces are assortments of smaller, palm-size forms that look like a variety of other aquatic life that might be found on a beach. These are usually more densely pigmented than the container, but usually related to it by their primary color.

The beauty of the container-like ''Seaforms'' seems nuanced, however, when the showstopper is encountered, the expansive multipart ''Translucent Yellow Seaform Persian Set,'' which is a lustrous lemon yellow almost all over. The work runs 58 feet horizontally, and viewers are encouraged to think less of a watery reference than of a desert-like one, or even of moon rocks.

Mr. Chihuly certainly knows the revivifying power of a contradiction. Another visual contradiction might be his drawings. They are quick and schematic when compared to the resulting sculpture and yet they seem to perfectly capture its sensations. Mr. Chihuly is able to represent translucency in a drawing. He often specifically relates the predominant forms to the Indian baskets that were their primary inspiration.

Accompanying the exhibition is a 90-minute videotape, ''Chihuly Over Venice,'' which documents the making and installing of 14 extravagant chandeliers he made for many venues in that watery city in 1996. It's a frenetic spectacle; a viewer doubts if the metallic rock and roll—which comprises the soundtrack along with Vivaldi—is really played while the glass is being made, but it shows us the burly artist himself, a bracing contradiction to his elegant creations. The tape has a couple of episodes of Mr. Chihuly and an assistant hurling glass objects into a stream and watching them float, and the colorful narrative is at several points interspersed with black-and white footage of Mr. Chihuly wedged into a bathtub, fidelity to water in the extreme.

©1998 The New York Times Company

More essays about Seaforms:
Chihuly and the Sea, Sylvia Earle
Chihuly Seaforms, Joan Seeman Robinson
Dale Chihuly: Shell Forms, Linda Norden

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