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Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Chahuli at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

Somewhere in the library's collection there used to be a DVD, probably from PBS, about unique artists in America. One of them was Dale Chahuli and when I saw his work my mind boggled. I am sure my eyes bulged out like a cartoon character about to be crushed by a falling wall or run over by a train. That's how I felt after seeing this man's amazing manipulation of color and glass. Obviously I sent the right prayer out into the universe because last spring the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, in Richmond, announced that he'd be putting an exhibit up in the fall. I have been chomping at the bit, waiting for it to be open and for me to have a day off so I could go wallow in the magic. That happened yesterday. Sigh.

BD had a crack-0-dawn eye doctor visit and we were free to play in the city by 9:15. We took a lovely walk around the neighborhoods west of The Boulevard, around St. Gertrude's HS - where I spent the 3 most awkward years of my adolescence. It's a dear part of the city - almost as dear to me as The Fan and if I were ever to move back to the city I could imagine living there. Love me a walking distance neighborhood.  

Alas, his eyes were so dilated he couldn't see anything. Museums aren't as much fun for him anyway, now that he has only the one eye. Also, he couldn't remember who Chahuli was or ever seeing the dvd, though I've watched it twice and he doesn't usually miss anything I'm looking at. So after a cup of coffee on the cafe deck, where we could see the first - or the last - of the installations, he strolled off for another walk around the city while I dipped myself in visions of colored glass.

My favorite of everything I saw was the boat filled with snaky lass dancing in the air and reflected in the black plexiglass platforms. Mind now - I liked just about everything he did - but that was my mostest favoritest of all. I can't describe what it did to me - how it made me want to become that object - to absorb it, subsume it, eat it, just everything. Meld! That's the word. I wanted to become one with that glass.

I also, particularly liked the way the lighting caused magical shadows on the wall behind the exhibit.
My second favorite was the ceiling of glass objects. More than 1000 individual objects are set out on the clear glass ceiling so that you can see through one to another. This was one of the types of installations I saw on that DVD - though my memory says he has a FLOOR!!! like this in his house. And if he doesn't .... he ought to! LOL. Can you imagine waking up to look at this every day - or entertaining guests beneath it? I don't know if I'd ever leave the room if it were in my house. I might just fade away there and leave a pile of shadowed colored bone dust.... 

There were also some collections on walls. One was of his drawings which, though they did not thrill me, showed me how his eye and mind worked when he wasn't making glass. The arrangements of Navajo blankets and 100 year old Native American Portraits were interesting. In fact, I was inspired by the blankets to come up with some stranded colorwork designs ... comparing Navajo weaving with Shetland Island knitting - that would be a fun art student's  graduate's thesis.

In contrast to the vivid color of the first two glass displays was this series, inspired by baskets, of mostly clear glass vessels. I'm not sure which impressed me the most - the Douglas Fir table cut from a single slab or the fragile glass vessels. They were beautiful - almost ethereal - but not as effective in capturing my heart - my soul. These were pretty - but they never owned me.

The next room held these huge bowl like shapes ... and now I forget what he called them - I thought of them as flowers, but he called it a spotted forest - only in a foreign language. Forgive this reporter's negligence and lapses. What he said in the audio comments was that he had gotten a collection of 200 color rods and he wanted to use all of them in something. He used some colors  inside the shape and different colors outside the shape, with a layer of white glass sandwiched between. The sheer size of these things made me shiver.

I had seen him making them with his studio team on that video. While one man is twirling and blowing this enormous circle of hot glass, Chahuli would tap it with these giant paddles to push it into the bowl like shape. Alas - my photographs were way too muted - the room was quite dark. Just know that these giant flowers are 3 feet across.

And then

And then you step into the garden. It is a garden of unimaginable (so you have to see it with your own eyes) intricacy, color, shape, and movement. It's an enormous display, each object worth an hour's study and all of it reflected in the black plexi-glass, giving you two places for your eye to visit.

I probably spent the longest time in this room, even though I still love the boats full of colored snakes the best. There's just so much to see in this room it's hard to fall in love. Too much to do with your eyes to let your heart stake its claim.

But sometimes art takes time. It's possible on my next visit - for you can be sure, I am going back again - I will have a more emotional reaction to this room. But here I was all intellect - looking, seeing, thinking.

I did not photograph his neon and glass tumbleweed. It is actually a very interesting thing and if it had been earlier in the exhibit I might have felt its impact, admired it more, loved it some. But after the giant garden, I was really not able to appreciate it - and didn't think I could photograph it well, either.

Instead, I went into the next room where blue candles had a Zen effect on me, calming me down from all the energy in the garden.

Can't you hear the music of that blue fringe?

The last display is one I had glimpsed already as I drove past the museum in the early evening last week. It hangs in the window at the front of the new wing - and it is classic, Medusa-like Chahuli - all sinuous snakes of glass arranged in perfect proportion.

I think that is one of the amazing gifts Chahuli brings to his work - beautiful, musical balance. He calls them "Installations" and that's an apt name but I think he could also call the symphonies.

Like the other installations, this one hangs above a black plexiglass platform so you can look down into it or up.

Thank goodness for zoom lenses, too, because this is such a big piece and so far away  you can't really enjoy the details and they are also such an important part of any Chahuli exhibit.

Richonders are so lucky to have something like this right in their own back yard. Virginians who can get to the capital city really owe it to themselves to come see this. I am so so so thankful for the whole experience. I feel blessed to live in a time when this sort of beauty can be created, shipped, and displayed. Lucky Lucky Me.



  1. Whoa! Wonderful! Exquisite!

    Is he the fellow featured in one of the episodes of "Craft in America"? I'm gonna hafta go check!


  2. I'm a transplanted Pacific Northwester living in France. I feel a strange sense of pride every time I see someone fall in love with Chihuly's work. Thanks for the beautiful pictures and the taste of home. (As an aside, Chihuly lost an eye in a car accident many years ago)

  3. Yes, Margaret - he is. And Joan - I fell in love with him when I saw one of the documentaries on television. Seeing his work in person only deepened my passion.