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November 21, 2004 - March 20, 2005 at Pepperdine University, Malibu
November 19, 2004 - January 15, 2005 at L.A. Louver Gallery, Venice
November 20, 2004 - January 8, 2005 at Frank Lloyd Gallery, Santa Monica

by Bill Lasarow

Rarely has an individual artist’s name come so close to branding a medium. “Dale Chihuly” and “art glass,” it’s the art world equivalent of “Kleenex” and “tissue paper.” So, naturally, a Chihuly exhibition in L.A. isn’t just an exhibition but a festival. We get a survey of large scale architectural works (at Pepperdine), a new “garden of glass”, the Mille Fiori series (L.A. Louver), and a selection of elegant small scale works from the Baskets, Persians, Cylinders, and Seaforms series (Lloyd).

Of course with Chihuly we aren’t just getting the work of the single master artist but a full scale workshop striving to invoke the artist’s vision. And what a sensuous, florid vision it is. Chihuly is one of those artists determined to prove the aesthetic worth of a once scorned material by figuratively transforming lead into gold. My, how he has succeeded. In the case of glass, that fragile substance, it meant spinning the most delicate forms possible, contradicting its public reputation.

“Goldfrost and Clear with Amber
Chandelier,” 2004, handblown glass.
Photo: Jack Crane. Courtesy of
Pepperdine University, Malibu.

“Mille Fiori” (detail), 2004,
hand blown glass.
Photo: Jack Crane. Courtesy
of L.A. Louver, Venice, CA.

“Mille Fiori XVII," 2004,
blown glass, installed dimensions:
77 x 144 x 109 1/2"..
Photo: Jack Crane. Courtesy
of L.A. Louver, Venice, CA.
With Chihuly, pushing the physical limits of glass turned out to be no simple act of defiance but an aesthetic Big Bang. The sheer volume of work encompassed in these three spaces, itself just a small corner of the artist’s oeuvre, conveys an immense and affirmative energy. This, in fact, is a direct reflection of the kind of energy that feeds and sustains Chihuly’s studio process, and which has long placed him in the central position that he occupies. Images and objects have been pouring out of this guy in a steady torrent since the 1960s.

His modis operandi has long been established. A core inspiration strikes him, often in response to a visual encounter: Native American basketry, the similarity between plants and animals under the sea, a romanticized notion of Persian or Venetian culture and artifacts, a botanical garden. Rapidly done studies, executed from above dripping and squirting paint onto the floor in the classic Abstract Expressionist mode, allow him to play out various possibilities, and occasionally inspire a new category. Then he and his workshop staff go through a process of blowing, shaping, decorating one tryout piece after another until the series starts to establish itself.

As a series gradually gains identity and traction it becomes a staple, it becomes the source of both singular collectible type objects, and the source of innumerable modules that may be used in much larger objects and installations. Since initiating the first such series of Baskets (in 1977, the year following the loss of sight in his left eye due to a traffic accident), he generated at least ten major series over the next 15 years, at which point the installation groupings began to occupy the foreground.

The Pepperdine exhibition brackets the chasm that lies between the paintings, with selections from the Reed series, and the crescendo of a massive Goldfrost and Clear with Amber Chandelier. The writhing auriferous Medusa creature floats in the air, alternately protecting and thrusting forth many ornamental pods, all of it glowing with the life and light of neon tubing planted within its armature. Keep in mind that literally hundreds of individually blown glass forms are assembled into the single grand effect, just as hundreds of discrete Persian units are subordinated into a cascading wall.

Meanwhile, at the Lloyd Gallery, a selection of individual Persians, Baskets, and Seaforms are presented on their individual merits. Rather than an overwhelming explosion of rainbow colors, nesting forms, and undulating movement, the same qualities can be absorbed and appreciated for their own sake here.

The Mille Fiori (Italian for “a thousand flowers”) installation at L.A. Louver is not only au courant, but consists of the widest variety of component forms in a single spectacle to be seen. The plant and flower metaphor is hardly subtle, but the commitment to making glass come to vivid and organic life has to impress. Each of the hundreds of blown glass elements must be appreciated for having been created by hand, not manufactured, and so is a direct equivalent of an individual, hand done brushstroke in a painting.

Thus Chihuly comes to L.A. and shows us he has gone beyond the special effects possible in the blown glass object to the cumulative potential of a swarm of them.

“Seaweed Green Persian Set with Yellow Lip
Wraps,” 2000, hand blown glass, 13 x 40 x 24”.
Photo: Teresa Rishel. Courtesy of
Frank Lloyd Gallery, Santa Monica.

"Dandelion Yellow Basket Set with Redwood
Lip Wraps,” 1994, hand blown glass, 8 x 14 x 12”.
Photo: Scott Mitchell Leen. Courtesy of
Frank Lloyd Gallery, Santa Monica.