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