Art of glass

A breathtaking exhibition of Dale Chihuly's work.

As chandeliers go, Dale Chihuly's offering in the entrance hall of London's Victoria & Albert museum is pretty distinctive. The vast twisting construction of pale green and blue glass climbs upwards towards the vaulted ceiling in a seemingly gravity-defying display.

A similar piece currently hangs in the window of the Halcyon Gallery (144-146 New Bond St, London), welcoming visitors to an exhibition of Chihuly's work; curated to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the International Studio Glass movement.

From start to finish, it is a masterclass in the art of glassblowing. Chihuly studied at the Venini glassworks in Venice as a young artist in the late 1960s, in order to learn the skills of Italy's master craftsmen. He then promptly turned tradition on its head; taking techniques such as the 'lip-wrap' (a historic rim-strengthening method that is now Chihuly's trademark) and combining them with his individual brand of vibrant, irregular glassmaking.

He favours a collaborative process, acting as grand master to a willing team of artists. Indeed, a video loop shows Chihuly at work - wearing his distinctive eyepatch - encouraging a young team as they remove clear bulbs of molten glass from industrial ovens and spin them into fantastical shapes. It's mesmerising stuff.

Set over three levels, the exhibition strives to capture the essence of Chihuly's work. There are chandeliers, patterned glass orbs, an array of mis-shapen vases - even paintings, although these lack the skill of the artist's glasswork and feel like a poor man's Pollock. A series of wall-mounted shell-like plates in greens, blues and yellow cast dappled light over the walls.

Commissioned especially for the Halcyon Gallery, Mille Fiori is unquestionably the standout piece here. A 24ft long 'garden' on a reflective black base, it is an enchanting sea of scarlet sceptres, blue trumpets, striped conches, green anemones and a giant yellow chandelier. The effect is akin to a dazzling coral reef - to stand at the end of the gallery space, peering through the multi-coloured miasma, is nothing short of breathtaking.

It's also thoughtfully and precisely lit - with beams dancing across the suface of the glass. Chihuly says that light is one of his most important mediums; his work is as much about tranfiguring light as transforming spaces. "My installations are singular in scale, composition and form. At times they sit peacefully in nature, sometimes they hang from the ceiling and spring forth from walls. In any setting, the colour, form and light unite to create something magical."

The piece also plays on the juxtaposition between the man-made and natural, which Chihuly rates as "a very important part of my work." Indeed, previous exhibitions have set some of his more outlandish designs amid the flora of Kew Gardens, over the canals of Venice and along a river in Finland, from where the artist hurled his works into the water with abandon.

This is a window on to the lifelong passion of one man obsessed with glass, pigment and form - and doesn't suffer for being limited to the gallery's four walls. But the visitor leaves with one unanswered question: how on earth do they go about polishing it all?

Dale Chihuly is at the Halcyon Gallery (144-146 New Bond Street, London, W1S 2PF until March 31, 2012

Ben Whishaw as Hamlet by Derry Moore, 2004 © Derry Moore
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The art of coming out: how the National Portrait Gallery depicts the big reveal

Portraits of gay celebrities, politicians and sports stars line the walls in a new exhibition called Speak Its Name!, marking 50 years of advances in gay rights.

I have a million questions for the doctor friend I’ve brought with me to the National Portrait Gallery. A million questions that, if I really think about it, boil down to: “Why were the Tudors so godforsakenly ugly?”

Inbreeding? Lead makeup? An all-peacock diet?

I don’t know why I assume she’ll know. She’s a neonatologist, not a historian. But I’m desperate for some of the science behind why these 500-year-old royals look, if these imposing paintings of them are anything to go by, like the sorts of creatures that – having spent millennia in pitch black caves – have evolved into off-white, scrotal blobs.

My friend talks about the importance of clean drinking water and the invention of hygiene. We move onto an extremely highbrow game I’ve invented, where – in rooms lined with paintings of bug-eyed, raw sausage-skinned men – we have to choose which one we’d bang. The fact we’re both gay women lends us a certain amount of objectivity, I think.


Alexander McQueen and Isabella Blow by David LaChapelle, 1996 © David LaChapelle Courtesy Fred Torres Collaborations

Our gayness, weirdly, is also the reason we’re at the gallery in the first place. We’re here to see the NPG’s Speak its Name! display; photographic portraits of a selection of out-and-proud celebrities, accompanied by inspirational quotes about coming out as gay or bi. The kind of thing irritating people share on Facebook as a substitute for having an opinion.

Managing to tear ourselves away from walls and walls of TILFs (Tudors I’d… you know the rest), we arrive at the recently more Angela Eagle-ish part of the gallery. Eagle, the second ever British MP to come out as lesbian, occupies a wall in the NPG, along with Will Young, Tom Daley, Jackie Kay, Ben Whishaw, Saffron Burrows and Alexander McQueen.

Speak its Name!, referring to what was described by Oscar Wilde’s lover Lord Alfred Douglas as “the love that dare not speak its name”, commemorates 50 years (in 2017) since the partial decriminalisation of male homosexuality in England and Wales.

“Exhibition” is maybe a grandiose term for a little queer wall in an old building full, for the most part, of paintings of probably bigoted straight white guys who are turning like skeletal rotisserie chickens in their graves at the thought of their portraits inhabiting the same space as known homosexual diver Tom Daley.


Tom Daley By Bettina von Zwehl, 2010 © Bettina von Zwehl

When you’re gay, or LBTQ, you make little pilgrimages to “exhibitions” like this. You probably don’t expect anything mind-blowing or world-changing, but you appreciate the effort. Unless you’re one of those “fuck The Establishment and literally everything to do with it” queers. In which case, fair. Don’t come to this exhibition. You’ll hate it. But you probably know that already.

But I think I like having Tudors and known homosexuals in the same hallowed space. Of course, Angela Eagle et al aren’t the NPG’s first queer inhabitants. Being non-hetero, you see, isn’t a modern invention. From David Hockney to Radclyffe Hall, the NPG’s collection is not entirely devoid of Gay. But sometimes context is important. Albeit one rather tiny wall dedicated to the bravery of coming out is – I hate to say it – sort of heart-warming.


Angela Eagle by Victoria Carew Hunt, 1998 © Victoria Carew Hunt / National Portrait Gallery, London

Plus, look at Eagle up there on the “yay for gay” wall. All smiley like that whole “running for Labour leader and getting called a treacherous dyke by zealots” thing never happened.

I can’t say I feel particularly inspired. The quotes are mostly the usual “coming out was scary”-type fare, which people like me have read, lived and continue to live almost every day. This is all quite mundane to queers, but you can pretty much guarantee that some straight visitors to the NPG will be scandalised by Speak its Name! And I guess that’s the whole point.

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.