Dale Chihuly

This exhibition of Dale Chihuly’s work foregrounded the dialogue between classical container and organic exuberance that characterizes his work. Ikebana, 1992, is a series of elegantly somber gray vases with subtle contours, tautened by the formal restraint and reverence for tradition fundamental to oriental ceramics, however teased by Chihuly’s tendrils of glass winding around and down from their mouths. In the “Venetians,” 1989–92, the shoulders and bellies of the vases suggest full-blown fertility figures, which sprout incorrigible fronds of lilies and wildly coiling vines in a chorus of variations.

A forthright showpiece and technical tour de force, the huge Chandelier, 1992, is made of yolky-yellow globes suspended from the ceiling like a trophy of nippled balloons. These pendulous, biomorphic bags (created especially for the bay window of a gallery overlooking downtown traffic) are fleshy and funny; that they are made of glass seems almost incomprehensible. This is where Chihuly’s talents lie: in his solicitation of the animate potential of his material. It’s not that he forces the intractable qualities of rigid glass to suggest transience, growth, and pulsating change, but, rather, that he wants to arrest the generative process by capturing shapes in their developing states.

Macchia Forest, 1992, is at once a collection of large bowls and a garden viewed from the ground. Elevated on pedestals, some at eye-level and others as high as nine feet, the flaring sides, rippling folds, and ruching lips of these bowls suggest membranous plants reaching upward to the light. CAC Window, 1992, achieves an almost diaphanous quality with a trail of huge, bright, petaled shapes hung parallel to the window, some opaque and some transparent, their concentric patterns suggesting a constant expansion from the core. That these are immense hunks of heavy glass suspended from a strong supporting grid underscores Chihuly’s insight that the material properties of the medium are perceptually contradictory, and that therein lies much of their expressive power.

In contrast, the enormous globes of the Niijima Floats, 1992, which sat beached on a floor strewn with shattered glass in their own darkened room, seemed dense with mysterious matter. They’re like miniaturized planets that suggest we ourselves are much larger than life. This melodramatic installation, illuminated by soft spotlights beamed down on each sphere, emphasized Chihuly’s conception of space. These aren’t just gargantuan variations on the bubble, that first shape of the glass-blowing art, but—in their gentle, uneven contours and crackled, irridescent surfaces—they echo the transformation of matter from the atom to the black hole. Glass used this ambitiously reminds us that it’s not only a challenging sculptural material but an artifact of the volcanic events that originate in the earth’s core.

Joan Seeman Robinson