Chihuly: Garden & Glass

Chihuly Garden and Glass
Seattle Center, Seattle, Washington
May 21, 2012 - on-going

Ten months ago the site that now boasts Chihuly Garden and Glass had existed for fifty years as little more than 1.5 acres of tarmac in the shadow of Seattle’s iconic Space Needle. The centre opened on May 21 as part of the 50th anniversary celebrations of the Seattle Centre, originally designed by architect John Graham for the 1962 World Fair. The new complex houses a repurposed exhibition building, a new glass house and gardens packed with exemplar work from various stages of American glass artist Dale Chihuly’s career.

The northwest state of Washington is Chihuly’s home turf. He was born in the city of Tacoma in 1941 and his studio, which is not open to the public, is located in Seattle. The Pilchuck Glass School, which he co-founded in 1971, is 50 miles north of the city in the foothills of Cascade Mountains. A scroll down the comprehensive list of public installations on Chihuly’s website shows that the state of Washington boasts an impressive, albeit dispersed, litany. But the last exhibition Seattle saw of Chihuly’s work dates back to 1992 when the Seattle Art Museum opened its downtown location. Hence, the opening of Chihuly Garden and Glass, which now exists as a permanent exhibition that spans the artist’s career.

Chihuly is an artist who has longed enjoyed international attention. His work is currently housed in 225 (and counting) permanent museum collections worldwide with numerous blockbuster viewing statistics. All of which is undeniably impressive. But Chihuly’s work can suffer from second viewing fatigue. Sheer scale and impact of colour tend to work best as a first impression; return visits struggle to conjure the same sense of impact. This centre cleverly combats these concerns with dramatic lighting of the enclosed interior spaces, a 40 foot tall glass structure flooded with natural light and a wealth of work installed outside.

Inside, I found the Northwest Room to be one of the most insightful expressions of Chihuly’s process. Exhibited alongside his early works in glass are objects from his personal collection of remarkably fine Northwest Coast Indian baskets and brightly coloured American Indian trade blankets. An interest in weaving early in Chihuly’s career can be seen in his Cylinder series, which include threads fused into the glass while in the molten state. Perhaps even more influential is the distortion of shape time has told on the baskets displayed, which is acknowledged as an early inspiration for his investigation of asymmetry in glass blowing.

As the exhibition text explains, “In a 1977 visit to the History Museum at the Washington State Historical Society in Tacoma, his hometown, Chihuly was impressed by a collection presentation of Northwest Coast Indian baskets. Struck by the slumped forms the baskets had taken over time, Chihuly sought to replicate the effects of weight, gravity and time in the wavering forms of his Baskets series.” While the complexity of form and boldness of colour in his later work demand the viewer’s attention, the atmosphere of this early work is far softer. As a result, the eye is invited to recognise some of the experimentations with shape that have become a hallmark of his later cacophonous installations. In addition to the work on display, extensive video footage provides a sense of the physical strength, coordination and complexity that glass blowing demands.

Seattle’s somewhat notorious weather is often compared to Britain. Nonetheless, the sun shone brightly during my recent visit and the generous opening hours (twelve hours on Friday and Saturday and eleven on the rest of the week) allow viewers the chance to enjoy the the gardens and glass house in daylight, twilight and darkness, something impossible to experience during Chihuly’s 2005 exhibition at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, London. First impressions may underestimate this new centre as a clever merger of Seattle’s tourist to-do list. There is, of course, a requisite café and shop. But the quality of exhibition material and attention detail given to both the interior and the gardens deserve far more than a fleeting visit. With 17,000 bulbs planned for planting in the gardens this autumn, the spring and summer of next year will reveal yet another complexion to the site. It is outside in the elements, with natural light left to chance, that Chihuly’s work thrives on second viewing.

Crafts Magazine (Sept./Oct. 2012: 61-62)