To be honest, normally I don’t skulk around art galleries. So how is it that I found myself in a long lineup at the Museum of Fine Art in Montreal? Not that I don’t appreciate art, I do. But, I would rather spend time in a botanical garden any day than in an art gallery. However, here I was on a sunny afternoon lined up with others far more cultured than I waiting far too long to see a Dale Chihuly exhibit.
Who is Dale Chihuly you may wonder? Chihuly is to glass art what Christian Dior is to fashion. He’s huge – a glass sculptor who is known for his glass art pieces that are recognizable due to their grand scale and vibrant colours. His work is exhibited around the world in museums, historic sites and gardens.
I first saw Chihuly’s work at the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix, Arizona. They seemed out of place to me…at first. Tucked in among the cacti in the dry, drab desert landscape, the glass sculptures seemed to overwhelm the plants (and I came to see the plants!). But as I made my way through the beds and borders, I conceded that the massive pieces of brightly coloured glass brought the place alive. The searing Arizona sunshine danced on and through the glass, reflecting colour onto the plants and giving them a whole new look. By the time I got to the boat filled with glass balls I was convinced that there was a place for glass art among the greenery. And at dusk artistic lighting illuminated the installations. The effect was magical with the plants and the sculptures taking on an otherworldly aura. I was taken in and mesmerized. Chihuly had a new fan.
The next time I saw Chihuly’s glass art was in Jerusalem, not in a garden, but at the Tower of David Museum. Though the actual exhibition was long over by then (1999), Chihuly often leaves behind a remembrance piece of artwork after an exhibition. I came upon a modernistic butter-yellow sunburst hanging from an ancient stone ceiling in the tower and was taken aback. I felt unsettled, perhaps because the modern sculpture seemed to collide with the historic significance of the place. But then art is supposed to evoke an emotional response isn’t it? Upon reflection the sculpture’s presence in the room likely made me more aware of the age and importance of the sacred space. Instead of breezing through yet another “old” room I reckon I stayed a little longer because of the art than I would have otherwise.
So, fast forward to Montreal, and here I am jostling for a prime position to see “Utterly Breathtaking” (as the exhibit is named) . Surprisingly, seeing Chihuly’s sculptures in a gallery setting left me cold. Though any Chihuly work of art is spectacular, I did not find this exhibition utterly breathtaking as advertised. Many of the sculptures are similar to those I have seen in outdoor settings elsewhere – the sunbursts, the spikey things, the hanging chandelier-like structures, even the rowboat full of balls – it was all there.
But, it was dark. There were no other objects (such as plants) in the galleries for the light to bounce off. The colours were vibrant for sure, but they struck me as garish without anything else to tone down the hot hues.
Everything seemed flat…except for the lighted glass ceiling in one of the display rooms. It was was filled with multi-hued glass balls and sea shapes and drew lots of attention. Big lounging pillows on the floor allowed visitors to lie down and gaze upward to view the display.
I was in and out of there in a half hour and soon found myself in the gift shop in front of a stand of small Chihuly pieces for sale. Most were seashell-shaped like the one above. All beautiful, but priced at an average of $7500.00 each they were not moving quickly.
I still look forward to seeing more of Chihuly’s amazing glass sculptures, but for me installing them in a garden is the only way to appreciate them properly. It seems Dale Chihuly realizes this too. He says on his website, “I want my work to appear as though it came from nature so if someone found it… they might think it belonged there.” At Chihuly Garden and Glass in Seattle there are gardens featuring paths lined with trees, plants and flowers, all intended to make a rich backdrop for Dale Chihuly’s art. I am hoping one day to visit that garden to appreciate his special kind of garden art. http://www.chihulygardenandglass.com/garden