In Dulci Jubilo!
by Charles McGuigan
When it really works, visual art tickles the eye and sends shivers of delight up the spine that radiate through the torso before exploding in the brain, and memories of having seen this art crop up when you least expect it, returning you to that initial encounter of pure joy . And this, too: it turns your mouth into a smiling equator across your face, and makes you laugh. Laugh out loud. Laugh from the depths of your gut in a choking fit that relieves you of all stress, placing you fully in the moment. In short: it needs to be FUN.
In dulci jubilo!
That’s what Dale Chihuly has done with his glass art installations at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. What wonders to behold. Nothing else like it anywhere. And through February 10 it’s up on the Boulevard so if you visit no other art museum this year, go see Chihuly. Because missing it is on par with shutting your eyes to the night skies, or a lifetime of sunrises and sunsets.
The first room we enter is dark with massive orbs of glass like planets that rest in and around a pair of wooden dories. These globes range in size from about six inches in diameter to three feet in diameter. The largest weighs in at sixty pounds and was hand blown in Dale’s studios by one of his gaffers—an incredible feat, twirling sixty pounds of molten glass on the tip of a pipe and breathing life into it.
Some of these are among the largest pieces of blown glass in the world. They form an entire galaxy of planets, marbles out of space, and are positioned in this darkened room on a reflective surface like midnight water.
As a boy, growing up in the Pacific Northwest, Dale would comb the shore line of Elliott Bay on Puget Sound and find glass balls that had washed across the ocean from Japan, the floats of fishermen’s nets. And he treasured them and tucked them away in his mind. So much of what he makes comes at least indirectly from where he came up. The spears of eel grass. Sea-life of tidal pools.
Glass, in Dale’s hands, comes to life. And there is no end to the color. It’s as if he has stretched out the fractured light of a prism, pulled it apart like taffy and then squeezed every drop of color out of it and poured it into a gather of glass where it becomes permanently encased once it hardens. ” I’m going to use all 300 colors in the hot shop in as many possible variations and combinations as I can.” Those are Dale Chihuly’s words. And he does just that.
We lay down on the floor to view the Persian Ceiling, which consists of hundreds of separate glass objects, seemingly scattered on clear glass, strewn as if by the sea, and all backlit. In that first instant of viewing I’m catapulted to the coast of Maine over three decades ago, staring into a tidal pool at Acadia National Park, hunkered way down, my eyes inches from water clear as glass where I see periwinkles and starfish and anemones and urchins and sea cucumbers moving across or firmly attached to glacier-etched granite boulders sheathed in other organisms that are pink as salmon and white and the palest of green. Seeing those things when my father was still alive and my mother still had her wits and memory, reliving that time when it seemed nothing would ever change. It rolled back on me on a steady wave and everything was as it had been.
I know Dale lost his father to a heart attack, when he, the budding artist, was no more than a bud. I know Dale lost one eyeball in an automobile accident in England when he was very young but already an artist. He wears a patch over the hollow socket of that left eye. What he can see with just one eye causes me embarrassment for possessing two.
One of the largest display areas houses an entire world of glass and color. It seems the glass itself is radiant, alive with light, no other substance quite like it. Here there are elongated balloons of white, four feet long and a foot in diameter, and twisted cones, green and metallic, like cornucopia, upturned, like tornadoes frozen in time, and in among them are spears of clear glass like the pistils of a flower. Snaking branches and large misshapen cubes of blue glass that might have fallen away from an iceberg are interspersed. And there are balls like mercury glass from green to silver and tongues of glass that lap the air and an octopus and something that might be a sting ray.
Sometimes it looks like Christmas. And other times it appears to be a forest that arises from the arctic growing down to the tropics. It also calls to mind one of those dioramas of an ancient Ordovician sea during that great explosion of life in the shallows that ended in mass extinction. Here’s the thing about Chihuly’s work: It is one thing and in the same instant another. It suggests, but is not representational. What pervades it all is the sacredness and levity of everything.
Hanging in one of the great marble halls of the museum is one of his signature chandeliers. It must be fifteen feet tall and ten feet in diameter. At night, illuminated, it is a fountain of light and color. Back in 1996 Dale hung these chandeliers over the piazzas and canals of Venice.
In another exhibition area there are spears of tranquil blue glass, perhaps a hundred of them, growing out of logs like water reeds, like giant Spartina. And in another room are glass baskets, influence by native American Indian baskets. They are asymmetrical and slump in the same way that woven basketry does.
The only piece that is lighted from within is the tumbleweed, the last installment in this exhibit. It is made of glass tubing and filled with argon and glows blue. It is like a brain on fire with ideas, a staccato spark of neurons, or a Medusa, or a bundle of tube worms, all housed in a box with a mirrored floor so the image comes at you simultaneously from two directions and both of them are equally real.