Ron Glowen

Dale Chihuly's Venetians, his latest series of sculptural objects in glass, pays tribute to a favorite city and its alluring artistic influence. Venice is more than just an inspiration for Chihuly - it is the starting point of his Successful career as America's pre-eminent contemporary glass artist, and the source of renewal for his own romantic spirit. The legacy of the "Golden Age" of Venice wherein nature and art come together in felicitous harmony of form and spirit, is the celebration of nature and the senses through the unity of color and light. The history of Venetian art - especially in glass - and the romantic attraction of this city on the lagoon exerts a powerful influence on Chihuly's newest work.

The Venetians are unlike anything Chihuly has created. Using a refined and symmetrical shape as the core (rare for Chihuly, whose design manner is generally free-form and unorthodox), extravagant surface ornamentation of glass bitwork is added until the core is overwhelmed by these luxuriant growths. The "functional" component of handles are dramatically altered by a kind of natural metamorphosis: into knots and claws that surround the core shapes, into spiraling leaves or flame-like protuberances in sawtooth arrangements, of twisted coils and ribbons which erupt front the base and sides of the basic vessel. Function is no longer a consideration.; paradoxically, as Chihuly has for the first time employed the classic vocabulary of the traditional vessel form, his Venetians have become more purely sculptural. Due in part to the audacious increase in scale, the sculptural connotation arises when Chihuly abandons the notion of the vessel creating an interior space.

Color and texture are voluptuous, sensuous, startling in combinations and contrasts. Traditional Venetian glass motifs of latticinio, calcedonio (resembling layered stone and flaked crystal) and "ice-glass" in clear Venetian cristallo; or pure saturated hues of chrome yellows, cobalt blue and carmine red, give way to elaborate striations and volcanic flows of bubbly or mottled mixed color, metallic pigments and oxidations, and clashing combinations of intense pastels.

Tensions abound in the Venetians. Every attachment seems to indicate flux, a relentless organic force impinging on the physical integrity of the classic form. Hot glass simulates or is affected by natural properties and realities - its fluidity and the spontaneity of working equates to the mysterious metamorphoses of living organisms, while physical forces of gravity can be utilized or challenged to suggest an independent vitalism. The vegetative and biomorphic decoration and ornamentation of the Venetians seem to both confirm and contradict the laws of nature. The works expand aggressively into space, like a living and growing thing. And like living things, each work of the Venetians has an individual character, a personality if you will, much more so than Chihuly's other series.

Chihuly has transplanted the symbiotic relationship between designer and craftsman in the time-honored European tradition to his own operation and into the consciousness of the American studio glass movement, through his activities as founder and artistic director of the Pilchuck Glass School located near Seattle. Working with maestro Lino Tagliapietra, or with other master glassblowers such as the young Americans Rich Royal and Ben Moore. Chihuly relies on their particular strengths and personalities - with Tagliapietra a somewhat more formal and austere manner develops, while with the youthful Yankees a more free-form exuberance rises to the surface. As the complexion of the team changes, so does the work.

Arbitrary distinctions plague the visual arts, dividing the field between "high" and "low" designations of fine or applied, primitive or civilized, indigenous or academic, "art" or "craft." Chihuly is aware of these distinctions but does not consider those a factor in his self-estimation as artist or designer. His work moves freely across those semantic barriers into the arenas of contemporary sculpture, the American studio crafts movement, and the European epicurean tradition.

Chihuly's romance with glass, nature, art and life reaches new heights in the Venetians. He cultivates nature in the physical forms and visual effects of glass, and roots them in the fertile soil of cultural tradition.

The romantic spirit which pervades the Venetians is that of the city and its rich artistic history reinvigorated by Chihuly's mastery as an inventor of new forms of art, combining nature and tradition. The Venetians are a seductive new breed of glass sculpture, borne of art and life but nurtured by vision and imagination.


Published in Venetians: Dale Chihuly, Twin Palms Publishers, 1989

Also by Ron Glowen:
A Conversation with Dale Chihuly, Artweek, 1994