Tacoma’s Traver Gallery is hosting a show called “New Works: Chihuly.” An encounter with brand new glass vessels by Dale Chihuly in the intimacy of the gallery space is surprising. Chihuly has ascended to the heights of near apotheosis. One takes for granted that his work is only to be seen on TV or met in the church-like interior of a museum. A walk through the Traver Gallery’s doors, however, brings one face to face with new works by the great, creative engine that is the Chihuly enterprise. Entry into the gallery is like a refreshing splash of cool water as one immediately confronts a long table upon which six of Chihuly’s “soft cylinders” are arranged. The soft cylinder is a wobbly-walled, oval form characteristic of much of Chihuly’s work. The form was originally invented while the artist was seeking to mimic the shapes of Northwest Indian baskets that he saw at the state historical museum in 1977.
Some of the soft cylinders are done in clear glass, others are lined on the inside with gold or silver. All are wrapped in threads of brilliant color – loose and spontaneous “drawings” that are based upon Navajo blankets that Chihuly has admired since he was a student of interior design at the University of Washington in the mid 1960s. Each vessel is finished off with a “lip” of colored glass. The combination of all these elements gives the vessels their descriptive titles. “Clear Soft Cylinder with Alexandria Blue Lip Wrap” and “Gold Soft Cylinder with Evergreen Lip Wrap” are two examples of these.
In addition to the soft cylinders there are more geometric cylinders. Some are tall and narrow while others are short and wide. All are “wearing” their Navajo blanket, which is applied via a Chihuly-invented method called “drawing pick up.” Here, “drawings” in glass thread are laid upon a flat surface and a hot cylinder is rolled over them to pick them up. Thus, the resulting vessel becomes wrapped in the colorful design just like a person wrapped in a brilliantly patterned blanket.
The walls of the gallery are hung with large, framed drawings and paintings that are the shop blueprints for Chihuly’s vessels. Some are swiftly rendered, somewhat smudgy charcoal drawings. Others are more elaborate. “Burned Black Cylinder Drawing,” for example, is done in blue and black paint applied as thick as cake frosting. Gestural splashes and splotches of silver paint enliven the blue-gray, rough-edged paper on which the painting is done.
The bulk of the work in the show – the colorful pieces lined with silver and gold- have a 2010 date. The back space of the gallery, however, contains a body of work dated 2011. These are subtle things done in white glass. The busy lines, zigzags and interwoven marks of the Navajo blankets are now done in white upon the white vessels. They are brilliantly understated meditations; ghostly and yet serene.
All of the work in the show has the pared down and streamlined feel of a master artist at the high plateau of his golden age.
A famous son of Tacoma, Chihuly graduated from Wilson High School and then went on to receive a degree in interior design from University of Washington in 1965. He went on to learn to work in glass with Harvey Littleton in Madison, Wisconsin. In 1971, Chihuly was one of the leading lights in the establishment of Pilchuck Glass School, which has made our region a mecca of studio art glass. A 1976 auto accident in England left Chihuly blind in one eye; hence his characteristic eye patch. Since that time Chihuly has become director of a team of artists: a cyclopean maestro directing his master craftsmen as they pull bejeweled creations from the fiery Vulcan furnace.
The Tacoma/Seattle area is the epicenter of the Chihuly phenomenon. Because he made this region a center of glass, the Museum of Glass (MOG) came to our city. Along with UW Tacoma, the revitalized Union Station and the Tacoma Art Museum, MOG is a vital ingredient in the Tacoma renaissance. Chihuly is therefore integral to that renaissance. He went out into the world to win fortune and fame and brought the proverbial bacon back to his hometown.
The very ubiquity of Chihuly glass has caused him to be taken for granted on his home turf. A veritable cottage industry of Chihuly skeptics and Chihuly nay-sayers has been spawned. (See for example the debate on the building of a Chihuly museum at the site of the former fun forest at the Seattle Center.)
In times to come, Chihuly glass will be treasured family heirlooms like Ming vases or the products made by the shop of Louis Comfort Tiffany. We are fortunate to live in a time and place in which these masterpieces are still coming fresh out of the shop. A visit to Traver allows them to be experienced up close and personal.
“New Works” by Chihuly is on view at Traver Gallery through July 24. For further information visit www.travergallery.com or call (253) 383-3685.