Wednesday, June 19, 2013

The Fantastic in the Fine Arts: The Work of Dale Chihuly

A few weeks ago, I was in Seattle visiting family and friends.  It was a wonderful trip--we saw the Space Needle, Lake Union, Discovery Park, and Pike's Place Market, and enjoyed lots of fantastic food and drink.  One of my favorite moments of the trip, however, was our visit to Dale Chihuly Garden and Glass, a museum entirely dedicated to the works of glassblowing artist Dale Chihuly.

The museum consists of two main parts--an indoor exhibition hall, and an outdoor glasshouse and greenhouse.  Much of the entire museum was dedicated to works inspired by nature and, in particular, gardens and plant life.

Take for instance the work Mille Fiori, pictured below.  This compilation of many pieces from Chihuly's collection resembles a fantastical garden, filled with vibrant, otherworldly plants.  Chihuly's website explains the importance of gardens in his work: "The artist’s association with gardens is strongly autobiographical and references his mother’s passion for gardening."  While certainly grounded in both autobiographical and botanical reality, Chihuly's plants also invoke the fantastic, the world of the impossible.

The most powerful examples of this, however, come when you move outside to the glasshouse and garden.  Here, Chihuly's works are interspersed among actual plants.  According to the website, Chihuly has often said,  "“I want my work to appear as though it came from nature so if someone found it… they might think it belonged there.”  And in many ways, that is what he accomplishes--his sculptures fit into the garden and appear to be a part of it.  The shapes of the sculptures often mimic the shapes of the plants around them, creating a harmony between plant life and art that is unique and creative.

But at the same time, there is no way that you would ever think these sculptures actually were part of nature.  Their colors are too vibrant, their shapes are too crisp, their curves too well-defined. They belong to the realm of the fantastic--that which exists in between reality and the supernatural--and as a result, they are perhaps even more powerful.  They both remind us of nature and push us past it, providing viewers with a grounding in reality while at the same time evoking things yet to come.

Adding to all of this is the location of the museum--right at the foot of Seattle's iconic Space Needle.  Although over 50 years old, this image still invokes the idea of the future, as it was created as a building for the space age for the 1962 World's Fair.  Enjoying Chihuly's work at the base of this futuristic design enhances the otherworldliness of the exhibition--perhaps you accidentally traveled by spaceship to another world and are now enjoying an alien garden.  (Click here for a fantastic picture of the gardens up against the backdrop of the Space Needle.)

Overall, it's a wonderful exhibition.  At $19 for adult admission, I'm hard-pressed to say it's well worth the price, but I almost think I have to.  You can mitigate this somewhat by buying the combo ticket with the Space Needle, which is $35 for both.

My only real complaint (other than ticket price) is that there is almost too much of Chihuly's work in a concentrated space, which leads to the dilution of the effect of his creations.  In many ways, it would be more effective if his work were spread out among the work of other artists, so that you would have a chance to breathe in between the various pieces, and come to each new display with fresh eyes that are better able to appreciate the fantastic nature of Dale Chihuly's art.

By Jen Miller