Glass is an unforgiving medium. Whether it's a sculpture or a functional object in daily life, glass is fundamentally cold, hard and brittle. To work with glass requires deft, meticulous attention to temperature and timing. And it's so fragile that to merely say it "cracks" when damaged doesn't have the same drama as to say it "shatters."
Both technically and artistically, Dale Chihuly has triumphantly defied the demands of glass. Phoenix Art Museum's latest major exhibition, "Dale Chihuly: Installations," demonstrates why he is known internationally as the artist who revolutionized glassblowing as an art form.
Chances are, you've seen Chihuly's work, perhaps in a public installation, such as the one at Bellagio in Las Vegas, or in the permanent collections of more than 200 museums around the world. His distinctive style is readily recognizable. But if you're unfamiliar with his sculptures, "Installations" will provide a broad overview of Chihuly's signature shapes.
Visitors enter the darkened Steele Gallery to view a gleaming black wall display case filled with ghostly white Seaforms. These nearly transparent, gracefully rippled pieces evoke the strange, underwater beauty of jellyfish or polished shells, giving the viewer a glimpse of the shape of things to come.
Chihuly's pioneering techniques have made him famous for creations of breathtaking scale. His mastery of size is apparent in the second installation, a Chandelier suspended like an abstract Medusa head, with huge, swirling tendrils of colored glass. Rather than appearing monolithic, the motionless cluster seems inherently dynamic, organically spiraling outward. The same feeling is repeated throughout the show, in such works as Blue and White Tower, a shining mass of curls rising skyward, and Niijima Floats, iridescent spheres up to 40 inches in diameter -- the world's largest free-blown glass forms -- that float on an ocean of crystals.
Bright, saturated color is integral to most of the installations. Macchia Forest is simply mesmerizing, with curvaceous pieces in rich hues that seem to be illuminated from within. Undulating forms in the playful Ikebana series are punctuated by lime green, cobalt blue and crimson. Putti Venetians, Spears and Jerusalem Cylinders also depend on dazzling color.
Persian Seaform Ceiling is the grand finale of the show, a long hallway with a clear glass ceiling covered in all sizes of organic-looking Seaforms as well as wavy, blooming shapes called Persians, another Chihuly trademark. Lighted from above, the smooth glass surfaces bathe the hallway in color, making the viewer a part of the installation.