All blown up 

Chihuly exhibition attempts to shatter preconceptionns

click to enlarge Look but dont smash: an unwrapped Chihuly chandelier - hangs in the East Gallery of the Fine Arts Center. - CHRISTIAN A. MANZO
  • Christian A. Manzo
  • Look but dont smash: an unwrapped Chihuly chandelier hangs in the East Gallery of the Fine Arts Center.

Perhaps it's my nature, but glasswork brings out the Hulk in me. I want to smash.

Chihuly Studio's exhibition coordinator Jennifer Lewis laughs at the idea. Dale Chihuly's blown glass, it turns out, is sturdier than you'd think. "We don't pussyfoot around in our work," Lewis says. "If you can't bump the glass into another piece without shattering it, it shouldn't be in the sculpture."

Suffering one broken heron already, the exhibition team was working full speed when I visited, with only one week left to the opening night of Chihuly at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center.

The FAC exhibit is a timeline of Chihuly's lifework, beginning with his early experiments and ranging to today's fully realized sculptures. In a clever move, the work is often showcased beside the museum's house collections, the pieces complementing each other nicely.

Following the progression from the rather static "Basket" series to his more fluid, organic work that captures the essence of sea forms, and even vegetables and birds, is intriguing. The "Macchia Forest" is a culmination of Chihuly's experimentation in color, while the "Nijima Floats" installation is a design wonder.

Highlighted are the many chandeliers -- massive, swirling sculptures that seem ridiculously fragile for their size, some reaching approximately 1,200 pounds. In preparation, the FAC undertook major construction to install the pieces, which cling to heavy steel armature attached to cables that had to be soldered to the ceilings' rafters. In order for each chandelier to look just right, a certain degree of fussiness was involved, much like dressing a Christmas tree. As a result, each piece looks different in every show.

Chihuly began his work in the 1960s, experimenting with blown glass and textiles, then moving on to create large-scale artwork and installations for major museums, including the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. His studio, located in Seattle, Wash., houses a team of 70 employees, though only 15 are glassblowers.

A car accident in 1976 left Chihuly without sight in his left eye; as a result, he has very little depth perception, a problem that curtails his work blowing glass.

As a wood sculptor examines how grain will determine the sculpture's shape, so Chihuly works with glass -- to envision what forms come naturally. According to Lewis, he "choreographs" a glass-blowing team who gives his vision shape and substance. While workers are free to experiment, nothing is presented without a thumbs-up from Chihuly.

"He's like a director of a movie," says Lewis. "Dale develops a language, and we all speak that language. If you become very fluent in it, you can sometimes make slang or create idiom, but you're still using Dale's vocabulary and speaking his language."

Still, because Chihuly cannot produce the work himself any longer, critics have wondered if his studio is, in fact, an art factory, pumping out blown glass for the masses.

Lewis firmly insists, however, that Chihuly's work is not commercial. "For any artist who wants to produce monumental sculptures, you can't do that alone. He likes to work with a team," she says.

"He's accessible, not commercial. He's prolific, not mass-produced. Luckily, he's really good at keeping focused on his own work and not paying attention to the press."

-- Kara Luger


Chihuly at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center

Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, 30 W. Dale St.

Friday, April 22-Aug. 14.

Monday-Thursday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Friday-Saturday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. (until 10 p.m. beginning May 6); Sunday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Admission: $5-$10 nonmembers; free for members and children 2 and under

Call 634-5581 for more info.


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