[Slate] Virtual Chihuly

Rohit Khare (rohit@uci.edu)
Mon, 14 Jun 1999 00:11:38 -0700

[This just *had* to be forkchived -- what a zinger at the end! I'd=20
heard of his popularity among the software set, but I'd never heard=20
the dirty little secret of his prolixity... and the point about=20
"merely" decorative art is well-taken; I like simple pleasures, too,=20
but I do subscribe to a prejudice about discriminating art that=20
reveals something hidden and challenging about the form/technique and=20
somthing hidden and challenging about the artist, or ourselves...=20
just bought a large poster of David Hockney's Pearblossom Highway=20
photocollage at the Getty today; I think that's linked in here,=20
somehow. I just don't know the link type... RK]

Heart of Glass
When folks say "art" in Seattle, they reach for their Chihuly.
By Eric Scigliano

The New Northwest's distinguishing feature isn't rain or money or=20
coffee. It's Chihuly. Not "Dale Chihuly." Not "glass art by Dale=20
Chihuly." Chihuly is all you need to say, whether you're talking=20
about a particular glass piece ("a Chihuly") or evoking the movement,=20
the institution, the aesthetic, and the regional identity epitomized=20
by the Northwest's (and the glass world's) most famous artist. Not=20
since Bernini decked Rome with fountains, or at least not since the=20
Wyeths became Maine's official art family, has an artist so=20
exemplified the spirit of a city or region-and it took three=20
generations of Wyeths. Chihuly's work doesn't say anything outright=20
about us, but he's the best mirror we've got for divining what we've=20
come to today.

A little background, with apologies to anyone who lives here and=20
already knows it all. Dale Chihuly is the artist/celebrity who gets=20
most of the credit for elevating glass blowing from one more craft to=20
a bona fide-and wildly popular and lucrative-art form. He grew up in=20
Tacoma, Seattle's soporific little-sister city, and headed first back=20
East, and then to Venice, to study in the emerging studio glass=20
movement. In 1972, on a tree farm north of Seattle, he founded the=20
Pilchuck Glass School, which made that movement an institution even=20
as he turned it into an industry.

Try as we may, we can't escape the glass Chihuly makes (or rather,=20
has others make): the lurid "Venetians," writhing "sea forms," and=20
extravagant, candleless "chandeliers" resembling giant wasps' nests=20
or clusters of water-filled condoms. The loftiest galleries and=20
living rooms out here have their Chihuly bowls; the crasser tourist=20
galleries stock copycats. To gain "Seattle credibility," the=20
apartment set in the sitcom Frasier sprouted one. No new cultural=20
palace or festival shopping experience is complete without a Chihuly=20
(see the note at the end of this article if you think I'm=20
exaggerating). Seattle's new symphony hall boasts two Chihuly=20

Chihuly himself is just as much a fixture as his Chihulys, especially=20
in of the Seattle Times' gossip column. (Sample: "While a tour of the=20
[Chihuly] studio is standard for celebrities, Bono did it one better.=20
He tried his hand =8A at glass blowing.") The Seattle Opera=20
commissioned a set (in Mylar) from Chihuly. Only Leonardo da Vinci=20
and King Tut have topped the attendance record set by Chihuly at the=20
Seattle Art Museum. The first project Paul Allen picked for his new=20
film company was a study of artists' inspirations, including =8A you=20
guessed it. But the ultimate confirmation of Chihuly's stature is the=20
lottery hometown artists stage to mock Seattle's star-struck=20
provincialism and celebrity fawning: The winner gets to "smash a=20

But Seattle still lags behind its erstwhile rival Tacoma in=20
Chihuly-mania. For Tacoma, glass is a last chance at world stature.=20
Its grandest landmark, the Neo-Baroque Union Station, has been=20
renovated and reopened as a Chihuly showcase, with the mother of all=20
chandeliers in its atrium and more big pieces scattered around. This=20
is just the warm-up to the International Glass Museum (originally the=20
"Chihuly Glass Center") being built on Tacoma's waterfront, reached=20
by a 474-foot "Chihuly Bridge of Glass." Tacoma's captains of=20
industry and finance all ponied up for it. As one of them told the=20
Times, "Every downtown needs a niche."

Chihuly is the natural choice for Tacoma and not just because he's a=20
native son. His is the perfect art for boosters, wannabes, new money,=20
and self-conscious arrivistes. In other words, perfect for the=20
precociously wealthy, culturally callow New Northwest. Glass has the=20
museum seal of approval, but it's supremely and (as practiced by=20
Chihuly) almost purely decorative-blissfully unburdened with=20
threatening, ambiguous, or other meanings. "You don't have to be=20
smart or art-historically sophisticated to understand these," a=20
Chihuly's assistant explains in one of several documentaries on him=20
by Seattle's public TV station. "They're merely beautiful." Forget=20
Sister Wendy and her gloomy paintings; glass, shimmering and vacant,=20
is the ideal TV art, a match for Riverdance and the tenors.

Glass also suits a money-drunk, technology-intoxicated place like the=20
Northwest. It's showy and luxurious, as glittery as jewelry and a=20
hundred times bigger. It's hard, slick and, literally, edgy. At the=20
same time, Chihuly taps an earlier, earthier ecotopic sensibility.=20
His forms evoke not only phalli and vaginas but sea squirts and=20
anemones-the marine biosphere that sustained the first=20
Northwesterners, which we still delude ourselves into thinking we're=20
sustaining. His "baskets" mimic Native American basketry outright.=20
The implicit, if wishful, message: We can have our machines and money=20
and preserve the wild, unspoiled Northwest.

But beautiful Chihulys are just part of the Chihuly phenomenon.=20
Chihuly himself is the main show. With his rampant curls, bluff=20
growl, black eye patch, and bright-colored pirate shirts and scarves,=20
he's the perfect foil to geek chic, a year-round version of the=20
"Seafair Pirates" who frolic at our big summer parade-the artist for=20
the new buccaneer capitalism, the jester who amuses (but never=20
challenges) the geeks. He reprises the Renaissance role of artist as=20
courtier, standing like a third senator onstage when President=20
Clinton visits, partying on Paul Allen's yacht with Robin Williams,=20
Candice Bergen and, of course, Bill and Melinda Gates. This year,=20
when Gates hosted his annual CEO Summit, the world's most celebrated=20
gathering of tycoons, who provided the entertainment? The Vienna=20
Philharmonic and, with "an exhibition of glass-blowing art," Dale=20

Not thathe blows glass himself, though he still says things like=20
this, from the 1994 book Chihuly Baskets: "Glass blowing is a very=20
spontaneous medium, and its suits me. =8A I've been at it for thirty=20
years and am as infatuated as when I blew my first bubble." Chihuly=20
hasn't actually blown since 1976, when an auto accident cost him an=20
eye and his depth perception-and made his career. He acquired the=20
trademark dashing eye patch, without which he'd be just another=20
chubby little guy with frizzy hair. And he hired other people,=20
including top Italian masters, to blow more glass than he could=20
alone-enough to make him the Christo of glass, decking Northwest=20
streams and (you've gotta admire the chutzpah) Venetian canals with=20
bright globes and tubes.

The Eye-Patched One has gone far, and so has this town. How far?=20
Consider the other time, 50 years ago, that Seattle had a=20
distinctive, defining artistic tradition-and not one but two=20
celebrity artists. Morris Graves, Mark Tobey, and others in the=20
generation later dubbed "Northwest visionaries" drank deep of both=20
the drizzly, mossy natural scene and of Asian art and philosophy.=20
Tobey sketched spinach hawkers and bums at the downtown Pike Place=20
Public Market and was sometimes mistaken for one. Graves hid out in=20
the deep woods. Tobey painted calligraphic "white paintings" and=20
Graves bodhisattva birds, in delicate gouache and pastel-media=20
notably unsuited to large atriums. Today these seem as quaint as=20
hand-bound books or handwritten letters.

Chihuly succeeds because he's not a maker of art in the usual sense;=20
he's a coach, ringmaster, and impresario-and, above all, an=20
entrepreneur. No one expects entrepreneurs to do the production work.=20
No one argues anymore over whether Gates is really a techie or=20
worries about Jeff Bezos' literary taste. And no one cares whether=20
Chihuly blows glass.

Like Seattle's software, bookselling, and coffee tycoons, Chihuly has=20
triumphed by marketing and branding the hell out of his product,=20
elevating it to something at once precious and ubiquitous. The=20
Northwest trick is not so much to create something out of nothing as=20
making something very large out of something small, and then=20
repeating the process. A hundred million PCs, a billion=20
"personalized" book and CD sales, a zillion cups of coffee =8A or=20
hundreds of chandeliers made of brittle blades of glass. Which is,=20
after all, just melted silicon.

Note: Chihuly Sitings
Chandeliers and other public installations by Dale Chihuly in Washington sta=
Columbia Tower Club, Seattle
Concepts Inc., Seattle
Davis, Wright, Tremaine, Seattle
Everett Community Theatre, Everett
=46oster & Marshall Inc., Spokane
=46rank Russell Co., Tacoma
=46red Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, Seattle
Genesee Partners, Bellevue
Dr. Eugene W. Goertzen, Seattle
Hillhaven Corp., Tacoma
Japan-American Society, UNICO Properties, Inc., Seattle
Jundt Art Museum, Gonzaga University, Spokane
Kargianis and Austin, Seattle
Kennedy and Associates, Seattle
Meany Hall, University of Washington, Seattle
Microsoft Corp., Redmond
Paccar Inc., Bellevue
Pacific Lutheran University, Tacoma
Pilchuck Glass School, Stanwood
Renaissance Madison Hotel, Seattle
Robbins Company, Seattle
Safeco Insurance Cos., Seattle
Ste. Michelle Winery, Seattle
Seattle Aquarium, Seattle
Seattle First National Bank, Seattle
Sheraton Hotel, Tacoma
Sheraton Seattle Hotel and Towers, Seattle
Simpson Investment Co., Seattle
Sleeping Lady Retreat and Conference Center, Leavenworth
Swedish Hospital, Seattle
Tacoma Art Museum, Tacoma
Tacoma Financial Center, Tacoma
Tacoma News Tribune, Tacoma
Trillium Corp., Seattle
Union Station, Tacoma (until 1999)
United States Border Station, Blaine
University Hospital, Seattle
University of Puget Sound, Tacoma
U.S. Bank Centre, Seattle
Washington State Convention Center, Seattle
Weyerhaeuser Corporate Headquarters, Tacoma
WestOne Bank, Seattle
Windermere Real Estate, Mercer Island
Source: www.chihuly.com

Chihuly's Web page, which contains photographs of and self-infatuated=20
personal statements about his many projects and individual pieces, is=20
located here (www.chihuly.com/). The largest permanent Chihuly=20
installation can be found in the lobby of Las Vegas' Bellagio Hotel=20
(www.bellagiolasvegas.com/version1/over/over_default.html). Titled=20
=46iori di Como, the work contains 2,000 pieces suspended over 2,100=20
square feet (www.chihuly.com/Fiori/fiori.html). If you don't have=20
enough cash to burn on a Chihuly (www.savagefineart.com/), go to=20
barnesandnoble.com for his coffee table books Chihuly Over Venice=20
(bn.bfast.com/booklink/click?sourceid=3D412995&ISBN=3D1576840050) and=20
Chihuly Seaforms=20
(bn.bfast.com/booklink/click?sourceid=3D412995&ISBN=3D0960838252). You=20
can get a feel for the old Northwest art scene by taking a look at=20
Water Birds, by Morris Graves=20
(www.artincontext.org/LISTINGS/IMAGES/FULL/9/WDNNDVG9.htm), and Two=20
=46igures, by Mark Tobey (www.wolman-prints.com/162/1348.2.html).

Eric Scigliano has written for the New Republic, MIT Technology=20
Review, and the New York Times. He is a senior editor at Seattle=20
Weekly and is writing a book about Puget Sound.