People Who Live in Glass Houses: Why Chihuly Matters

I first encountered Dale Chihuly’s work in Atlanta when he had an exhibition at the botanical gardens. I was in college and had not heard of him until my father (who frequently visited Seattle) suggested that his exhibit was not to be missed. I was less than a dilettante in art; my conservative upbringing had me worshipping canonical art and literature, but scoffing at abstract and modern works. There are many soi-disant literati who defy the institutional philistinism in the south, and who are only excused by their rank or their politics, and I was a budding member. Meanwhile, I was studying languages and life sciences full time, working overtime at my job, and socializing over-overtime, so I had no time for art. Seeking it was not a priority, especially when the “art world” seemed so sequestered and elitist. (Often, the art world doesn’t just seem this way.) Sure, like anyone who wants to seem well-rounded and cosmopolitan, I professed my love for art—which was true and instinctive, however narrow my aesthetic was—but it was not truly a part of my life.

I share this background because some of it may sound familiar to others. The art world remains maddeningly exclusive to many people. In the chicken-egg scenario that follows, these people never develop a taste for new forms and ideas, and yet they know they want to see more art, engage with it, perhaps even make it. They just don’t have the time and resources…and it’s all so “out there.” I wouldn’t admit it then, but I felt that way. If someone had told me that I would later devote my life to the arts, I would not have been surprised because I could be an arrogant prick. (Will I be part of an exclusive, intellectual world? Of course!) But I didn’t even know what I needed to learn, where to begin.

Yet, I knew that something significant had happened to me when I first saw Chihuly’s works among the flora in Atlanta. I was seeing abstract art that was also representational, that was modern yet defied the dual chaos and precision of modern art, that managed to contain these warring elements in one substance…and I liked it.

So when I stood in garden at Chihuly Garden and Glass on its christening night, I was taken back to that first encounter, and I was reminded in two ways that I might not have been standing there if it hadn’t been for Chihuly: most obviously because he and his team and supporters needed to build the thing, but also because his works got my wheels turning years before.

I like Chihuly a lot, and that is a problem for an arts writer because we are not supposed to like Chihuly much, and that goes double for all the soi-disant literati (like my younger self) who are literate enough to gather opinions but not form them. Chihuly is vulgar. Chihuly is a businessman, not an artist. (He doesn’t even make his own work, you know…) Chihuly is “the Thomas Kinkade of the glass world.” These are the usual attacks, and under scrutiny they fall apart. They fall apart and they reveal a lot of ugly things about the “art world.” I am not interested in exculpating Chihuly; he has a whole company that handles his marketing and legions of fans, so to spend time cheering for him would at best be a waste of breath and at worst make me look like a cloying fanboy. I also will not rhapsodize about everything he has done, because frankly I still don’t care for some of it.

I will gladly say what is good about Chihuly’s works, his entire operation, and the Chihuly Garden and Glass. To do so, one must inevitably address the criticism he faces, because one is bound to hear it. (And some of it is true. We have time to say what is bad about it, too.) I have already divulged my guilt and arrogance, so in a way I address my younger self in writing this. But first of all, we must also discuss the stigma on glass as a medium and some inconsistencies in how art and artists are discussed, all of which stymies artists and viewers alike.

Glass spinning at the Chihuly Boathouse

Ars Longa, Vitreum Brevis

Glass as a medium is fickle, expensive, and prohibitive in where and how it can be produced. As such, glass has a global community of artists and workers with varied techniques, who work under different circumstances, and who like to share and collaborate. With great skill, one can produce just about any shape, as the glass makers of Murano have done for centuries (where Chihuly studied the traditional), but few collectors and critics viewed it as art until Chihuly imported it and experimented with more monumental and abstracted forms. The collaboration and evolution continues, as over the years Chihuly’s team has traveled to many different studios and factories to share techniques and work in different environments, including glass producers whose facilities (sometimes thanks to less stringent environmental standards) produce kinds of glass impossible to produce elsewhere. While Chihuly continues to do his own thing, masters like William Morris (a longtime Chihuly collaborator) create more representational works or more mathematically exquisite and precise works (such as Chihuly alumnus Janusz Pozniak).

There are glass artists who defy conventions in other exciting ways. Anna Skibska developed a technique using a hand torch that allows her to work solo, constructing massive webs, pillars, and orbs of glass filaments. Etsuko Ichikawa used molten glass as a brush to create pyrography on massive sheets of watercolor paper. Ichikawa is still bound to furnace rooms, whereas Skibska is mobile, but both artists are working with glass as an abstraction. Ichikawa uses the properties of molten glass to create lasting images, but the glass leaves no material trace. Skibska (inspired by architecture) is interested in defining spaces with a play of light and shadow, and glass is ideal for this, but not exclusively (even though the pieces come to mimic the molecular structure of glass itself).

Glass blowers like Chihuly and his team work with the material in a traditional fashion, and this tradition is as worth continuing as any other artistic discipline, even if it has only recently been approached by critics. (Criticism itself is a young art form.) As I stated in the beginning, what one sees in Chihuly is a play of order (the prepared materials, the regimented means of creating the object) and chaos (the unpredictable final display of colors within the glass, the folds of Chihuly’s Macchia and basket creations). Certain pieces are sleek and distinctly modern; many are art-nouveau fantasies; some combine both. Some are abstract; some are representational; some are both. I believe Chihuly even strives to achieve a semblance of wabi-sabi imperfection, but the pieces are much too exquisite, too intact, never can achieve the pathos of a wabi-sabi object. They are, however, always playful.

And that brings us to another conundrum for glass artists: As a novel substance in sculpture (not a stately bronze or marble that comes with a rich history to either uphold or parody), glass is something of a precocious child, known for its fragility despite its incorruptibility (no rust, no erosion, no mouldering). If it allows itself to be playful, it will be seen as trite. If it takes itself seriously, it will be a mere facsimile or mock-up of a work in stone or metal (the way stately sculpture ought to be). Because it is incorruptible, glass is around us all the time and always breaking and chipping. It is necessary and utilitarian, but unreliable. Glass art, including Chihuly’s masterful creations, is naturally going to create a love-hate relationship with an audience that has had enough of the substance and all the quotidian hassles it embodies. So some viewers will see yet another troublesome glass object, a trite shadow of something that should be more durable (vitreum brevis, ars longa!), while others will see the apotheosis of a substance integral and ubiquitous to modern life. You can’t please everyone.

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