Light, space, form and colour transcend the fragile reality of glass with magical allure
TORONTO – American glass sculptor Dale Chihuly’s life context is intrinsic to his art.
For the young Chihuly, timing and creative acuity melded in 1963 at Kibbutz Lahav in the Negev. After travelling through western Europe, he had gravitated to Israel, where, he says, he arrived as a boy of 21 and left as a man whose life would never be the same.
Chihuly embarked on a course that led to an awesome career, recognition as an American art icon and exhibits that currently culminate in Toronto with a series of innovative installations created for the exhibit at the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM): Chihuly.
Leaving the kibbutz, Chihuly returned to the United States, earned degrees in interior design and architecture, learned to incorporate thin glass shards into woven tapestries, created his first glass bubble by blowing his breath through a metal pipe into a piece of melted stained glass and earned degrees in sculpture and fine arts. He also earned a Fulbright Fellowship to study in Europe and later became the first American glassblower to work in the Venini factory on the Venetian island of Murano.
There he learned the team approach to creating glass art that has become his métier for works conceived and created in his Seattle industrial “boathouse.” Because he was injured in a car accident, Chihuly has not blown glass since 1979, but he conceptualizes drawings and supervises his team from design through completion.
In emailed conversation, Chihuly said he sees himself as the equivalent of a film director. “You can make a film by yourself, but it’s a lot easier if you have a cameraman, a lighting person, someone to work on the script, etc. This enables me to work in a much larger scale and really push the material to the limit in terms of scale and form… Glassblowing is a very spontaneous, fast medium, and you have to respond very quickly. The team allows me to work fast.”
At the recent opening of Chihuly, he projected the quintessential artist persona, in a dark suit, lime green shirt, paint-splashed shoes and distinctive eye-patch, essential since broken windshield glass injured his eye.
Though accustomed to global accolades, he appeared humble during greetings from ROM director and CEO Josh Bassesches, and when American Ambassador to Canada Bruce Heyman praised him for his accomplishments.
Chihuly’s singular, incomparable international installations are legendary. One, Chihuly in the Light of Jerusalem 1999, created for the Citadel Tower of David Museum, inspired his first Jerusalem Cylinders series of complicated works melded with large chunks of crystalline glass that speak of the ancient stones laid by King Herod.
“I was inspired by many things, from the amazing light in Jerusalem to the historical landmarks, history, people and architecture,” Chihuly said.
Travellers may have seen Chihuly’s Fire and Water chandelier gracing Israel’s Aish HaTorah atrium, or exhibitions in Florida, Seattle or, in 2013, at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, whose curator, Diane Charbonneau is guest curator for Chihuly at the ROM.
For the exhibit, “Chihuly walked the ROM Garfield Weston Hall with his team to create a dialogue of his art with the space,” Charbonneau said.
Chihuly was delighted. “The ROM space offered wonderful and unique opportunities to show my work.”
At the ROM, every work in Chihuly begs for interpretation. Light, space, form and colour transcend the fragile reality of glass with magical allure. The darkened entrance gallery houses two black Plexiglass platforms, each reflecting a weathered skiff: The Float Boat installation is filled with multicolour bubbles. The Ikebana Boat brims with a seemingly effervescent world of sea flora and fauna. Turning the corner, I found viewers gasping with delight at the massive Laguna Torcello, a phantasmagorical interpretation of a Venetian lagoon island garden thriving with flora and sea creatures. Comprising 2,672 glass elements, it teases the eyes to follow dynamic evolutions of curlicues, tentacles and spirals.
Main gallery installations resound with colour. Red Reeds on Logs – a composition of 150 tall, thin glass bulrushes rising above a clutch of Ontario birch logs – boggles the mind. It’s hard to believe such lengths of glass can be blown without breaking. Chihuly’s hallmark herringbone patterned “Persians” are showcased in two enclaves: the Persian Ceiling and the Persian Trellis, created specifically for the ROM.
Viewers familiar with Chihuly’s nestled glass “baskets” will appreciate the final installation: a bank of shelves mingling the artist’s collection of woven and glass baskets and cylinders.
Chihuly is at the ROM until Jan. 2, 2017. Click here for more information, including events for children.