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A glass act: Virginia Museum of Fine Arts falls for Chihuly’s bold colors
BY MARTHA STEGER
FOR THE FREE LANCE–STAR
Renowned glass artist Dale Chihuly brings unique fall color to Virginia. His signature installation, “Blue Ridge Chandelier”—intricately constructed from 1,151 hand-blown glass elements and lit at night, sends sparkling hues of gold, white, blue and gray from its elevated position at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts facing Richmond’s busy Boulevard.
The shimmering, colorful light beckons visitors inside the museum’s 12,000 square feet devoted to the full sweep of Chihuly’s nearly five-decade career. From the atrium and the reflecting pool in the sculpture garden to the exhibition space on the lower level, fanciful installations immerse visitors in a world of colorful glass.
Chihuly’s work is so massively intricate that viewers easily imagine the laborious, painstaking work involved, but the glass master also talks about something else—speed.
“When you’ve got hot glass—an organic medium— and gravity is pulling on it, you’ve got to be fast,” he says. “I had to learn to manipulate the medium quickly, working against gravity but also learning to work with it.”
The sheer scale of his free-form style has made him notable—along with his range of colors from astonishingly brilliant to subtle, as well as the emotional impact his creations have on even casual viewers. “Chihuly at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts” includes “Tabac Baskets” illustrating his ties to the Pacific Northwest, where he was born and works today; “The Venetians” reflecting his early days at the Venini glass factory near Venice; “Mille Fiori,” literally “a million flowers,” highlighting Chihuly’s engagement with nature; and “Macchia,” drawing from the Renaissance tradition of applying color and celebrating the spontaneous and improvisational aspects of glass-creation.
Louis Comfort Tiffany’s windows helped inspire Chihuly’s work, and the “Blue Ridge Chandelier” at the VMFA appears to be in dialogue with Tiffany’s “Christ Resurrection Window,” created more than a hundred years ago but hanging adjacent to it. When the magnificent window was recently installed in the museum’s new McGlothlin Wing, it was the first time in more than 50 years that it had been on public view.
The medium of glass called out to Chihuly as a sculptural vehicle in the late 1960s after he had studied in the nation’s first glass program at the University of Wisconsin. He became a pioneer in the Studio Glass movement in which fine glass creations broke through the old ceiling separating craft and art. He continued his studies at the Rhode Island School of Design, where he later established the glass program, and went on to a Fulbright Fellowship in Italy, where he worked at the Venini Factory. His career has paralleled and revolutionized the Studio Glass movement—50 years old this year—and his name has become synonymous with it.
Recognized for his ambitious architectural installations around the world, Chihuly has also been innovative in gathering artists of all media and encouraging them to approach materials in unorthodox ways. Once he and his team of 20 glassblowers complete the sculptures at his Seattle and Tacoma sites in Washington, other employees see to the photography, packaging and shipping of the pieces for proper installation on-site.
Imagine installing 1,000-plus pieces of the packaged “Persian Ceiling” when they arrived at VMFA—where the “Ceiling” was ultimately backlit. Walking under the stunning installation makes every visitor feel like royalty —or at least an honored guest.
Chihuly’s “Laguna Torcello” is unique to the VMFA exhibition and represents a departure for the artist.
The VMFA show puts Richmond in company with cities across the globe, from Paris’s Palais du Louvre and London’s Victoria and Albert Museum to Venice’s canals and piazzas and Jerusalem’s ancient Tower of David. His lifelong fascination with greenhouses has also led to a series of exhibitions within botanical settings—in Chicago, London, San Francisco and Seattle—before the outdoor installation, in late August, of “Red Reeds” in the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts’ reflecting pool outside the Best Cafe. More than 60 feet long, the work features 199 “reeds” flowing upward as high as 10 feet, interspersed among the aquatic foliage.
“Certain things remain the same,” Chihuly says. “Sizes vary, but I’m interested in outdoor projects where landscape may be a point of departure.” He has said his favorite project is always “the next one”—and after such a spectacular VMFA project, Richmond will be waiting to hear what’s next.
What: “Chihuly at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts”
When: Through Feb. 10, 2013
Where: VMFA, 200 N. Boulevard, Richmond
Cost: Tickets are $16–$20, free for VMFA members, children 6 and under, and active-duty military personnel and their immediate families.
Info: 804/340-1405; VMFA.museum
DALE CHIHULY OVERNIGHT PACKAGE The Chihuly at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts Exhibition Package at The Jefferson Hotel includes accommodations, two tickets to the exhibition, traditional Southern breakfast for two, breakfast gratuities, valet parking and transportation to and from the museum. The cost per couple, per night is $265, not including taxes. The package is offered on a space-available basis, through Feb. 10, 2013, with the exception of Nov. 9–10, Dec. 31, 2012, and Feb. 1–2, 2013. Reservations online at jeffersonhotel.com or by phone 804/788-8000 or 800/424-8014.
Martha Steger is a Midlothian-based freelance writer.