As I was heading into "Chihuly at Phipps: Gardens & Glass", I was thinking about the relationship between crafts and the fine arts, the value of the mastery of technical skills in the making of things, and the use of collaborators and workshops to create ambitious work; in other words, all of those issues that I thought a printmaker might find interesting in an exhibition of glass sculpture by Dale Chihuly. Wonderfully, within seconds of entering the show I forgot about those things, and just found myself wandering around with my mouth hanging open. It's a breath-taking spectacle of a show.
The exhibition is one visual delight after another. It occupies the majority of the interior spaces at the Phipps Conservatory, with a few pieces placed outdoors as well. As I wandered through the various gardens filled with sculpture, what most struck me was how the glass seemed to have been designed for those specific plants - surely Chihuly had that exact cactus in mind when he made that particular form? But no, here's that form again in another setting, and it seems perfectly at home there too.
Eventually I realized that what I was responding to was how well these forms are drawn. These objects live so well next to natural forms because they are beautifully observed abstractions of nature. While not referencing a specific plant, they have a specificity of their own, that makes them seem to be the product of natural processes. The elements tend to be grouped in various families of forms, but each piece has its own history of growth that makes it a unique individual as well.
These herons, placed in the pools in the Japanese garden, were by far the most specific sculptural drawings. If I were teaching these days, I would direct my students here to study gesture. There's nothing about these forms that is specifically birdlike, but the gesture drawing is unmistakable.
One of the rather unique aspects of this show is that it's actually two shows - the daytime version and the show after the sun goes down. When darkness falls, the sculptures are artificially lit. As you might guess with glass sculpture, visual fireworks result.
Undeniably, a lot of the work was a lot of fun after dark. But I found the exhibition to be a lot less compelling when the plants became more of a frame and less of an active participant in the show. Natural light, and a more balanced relationship between the natural and the crafted, made for a more rewarding and thought provoking experience. But, that said, both versions of the show are well worth a visit.
The exhibition's stay here in Pittsburgh has been extended through February 24th. The Phipps Conservatory is located at One Schenley Park, Pittsburgh. You are required to order tickets ahead of time to guarantee admission to the show.