Glass Menagerie

The spectacular Dale Chihuly solo sparkles at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center.

Since taking over as president of the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center a couple of years ago, Michael De Marsche has made many changes -- some for the better, some for the worse. But one call no one can argue with is his decision to bring in Chihuly, a massive retrospective solo dedicated to glass wizard Dale Chihuly that is set to run nearly all summer.

What makes this such a savvy move is that it has attracted a lot more visitors than usual to the center. More people means more money, an increased admission gate and a rise in gift-shop sales, memberships and more. In fact, the press of crowds has forced the CSFAC to extend its hours, remaining open all day on Mondays as well as on Friday and Saturday nights. These evening viewings are an unexpected bonus, because that's when the Chihulys look their best. They glow under the spotlights and become truly luminescent.

The secret to the show's success is that Chihuly is more or less a household name -- the artist and his work have been featured in books and magazines and on television for the past quarter-century. In art, familiarity doesn't so much breed contempt as it does appreciation.

"Autumn Gold and Aquamarine Chandelier," by Dale 
Chihuly, glass assemblage.
"Autumn Gold and Aquamarine Chandelier," by Dale Chihuly, glass assemblage.


Through August 14, Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, 30 West Dale Street, Colorado Springs, 1-719-634-5581

Working in the Seattle area, Chihuly is among the best-known glass artists of all time, right up there with Louis Comfort Tiffany and Paolo Venini. But his real genius has been in changing the way people regard glass -- something even Tiffany and Venini couldn't pull off. Instead of using glass to make lampshades or vases, Chihuly used it to create sculptures and installations, thus brilliantly defecting from the arena of decorative arts to the loftier ranks of contemporary fine art.

The exhibit at the CSFAC features a big selection of the art star's accomplishments, beginning in the 1970s, when he started, and continuing to the present. Chihuly's in-house exhibition team selected the pieces and installed the show, which, considering the fragility of glass, makes a lot of sense.

Scores of pieces have been brought together for this huge effort. The show meanders throughout the majestic John Gaw Meem-designed center, with the Chihulys installed in most of the galleries, the niches, the hallways, the courtyard and in the newly created Deco Lounge bar.

The exhibit begins in the Garden Gallery, where the first phases of Chihuly's oeuvre are on display. I was shocked to see the delicate pieces sitting on tall iron and glass pedestals instead of being safely stowed away in showcases. I shudder to think how a wrong move on someone's part could do some expensive damage. The Chihuly studio-based organizers not only eschewed the use of showcases but also a lot of wall text, because both negatively effect the viewing experience. In response to the lack of labels, the CSFAC produced a handsomely illustrated color brochure that can be used as a guide to the show -- just don't walk and read at the same time, since you could bump into something.

The show starts off with Chihuly's earliest important pieces. These were inspired by American Indian art, in particular Navajo blankets, as seen in a series of "Blanket Cylinders" begun in 1975. The foundation for the pieces was laid a year earlier, when Chihuly and a group of friends began pulling glass rods into thin threads and then using the threads to draw on the surface of his pieces. By employing this new technique, and by choosing appropriate colors, Chihuly was able to suggest the mood, though clearly not the appearance, of Navajo blankets.

He created a similar feeling in echoing baskets made by various Indian tribes on the Northwest coast. Having seen the fabulous collection of the Washington State Historical Society, Chihuly was taken with the slumped and sagging appearance of the baskets, and he reproduced the concept in his "Baskets" series by creating forms that tilt this way and that, bulging here and there. The "Baskets" proved more important to Chihuly's future work than did "Cylinders" because the eccentricities of shape left the vocabulary of the traditional vessels and entered the realm of sculpture.

The CSFAC cogently paired "Blanket Cylinders" and "Baskets" with Navajo blankets and Indian baskets of the type that first lit Chihuly's conceptual furnace. The center has a world-class collection of this kind of thing, and it's good to see at least a fragment of it out on view, especially now that the permanent displays of American Indian and Hispanic art of the Southwest have been taken down for the first time since the center opened in the '30s. (Unlike bringing in the Chihuly blockbuster, the decision to short-change these pieces was not a good one on DeMarsche's part.)

Also in the Garden Gallery is a small selection of Chihuly's "Persians" from the 1980s, a series comprising flat, expressively blown bowls that are nested into one another or mounted on the wall. The "Persians" are a step closer to the full-blown sculptures and installations that earned Chihuly lasting fame.

One of Chihuly's most famous recent series is the "Chandeliers," and the Garden Gallery includes several of these. The "Chandeliers" are light fixtures in name only; they have no lights in or on them at all and thus need to be illuminated externally. The piece in the Garden Gallery is made of dozens of orange horns clustered together like the petals of a flower. It's fabulous. The "Chandeliers" were first done in the early 1990s, by which time Chihuly had embraced his signature Venetian-derived aesthetic; the "Chandelier" in the Garden Gallery fully reveals his debt to Venice.

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