On the Nature of Glass
By Karl F. Volkmar, NEW ORLEANS ART REVIEWDALE CHIHULY MUST have been a bad student! He was obviously not paying attention when his general science teacher was explaining to the class that glass was an inorganic amorphous solid. “Amorphous? Inorganic? How can that be?” With the creative institution of an Anthemius of Tralles, Michelangelo, or Ford (which looks beyond the known of the scientist and the engineer to what is possible), Chihuly wills the ‘shapeless’ of glass into seemingly organic forms. Whether the sinuous serpentines of the almost six feet tall Oynx and Caramel Chandelier, the humorous and elegant naturalism of Black Sea Turtle Pair Diving Atop Golden Vessel, or the basic functionality of Black Cylinder, Chihuly is constantly inventing and imagining to the delight of his audience.
Chihuly also seems to have ignored the art world pendants who declare that glass is the medium of craft, not art. Whaddya gonna do with an artist who follows his heart? Chihuly simply goes about doing what he knows how to do. Now, no sane critic would question the mixed media on paper Burnished Bronze Ikebana Drawing as to whether or not it is art because it fits readily within the traditional category of drawings. But when the ‘drawing’ is made on a glass ground as in Black Lemon Soft Cylinder with Kelly Green Lip Wrap, the critical discourse begins to talk about ‘decoration’ as a category and ‘drawing’ as the process of creating the decorative design. But try and tell Chihuly there’s a difference and he will wonder what on earth you are talking about. So should we.
I have always found it assuming to consider the inherent contradiction in a critical discourse which values, and devalues, according to categories assumed to be a priori in nature. Come on now! Aristotle refuted the notion over two thousand years ago. The amusing irony is that the individualist and formalist in modernism which mislead the art world into an arrogant and heady elitist attitude concerning art, artists, and art making are the same individualism and formalism that artists like Chihuly have taken literally to justify ignoring critical exclusivism and giving him license to create his lusciously sensual works in glass. As if they need any justification at all!
In contemporary revisionist thinking, critical positions are properly regarded as one component in a culturally determined contingent belief system, otherwise known as worldview. Chihuly’s work convincingly elides any debate by demonstrating the inadequacy of efforts to differentiate between art media, subverting and intellectual foolishness that suggests that any medium is more or less significant than another. Let the work of art, on which what all critical discussion feeds, defines and decide the question, or better yet, ignore the discourse and enjoy the art!
The three chandeliers in the show represent some of Chihuly’s more venturesome and exuberant works. The large Adventurine Green Chandelier with Copper Leaf, over eight feet high and almost five feet wide, it is an agglomeration of forms that mimics the writhing tentacles and flotation sacs of marine life. Our visual delight in the contrast of linear rhythms and spheroidal volumes mirrors the pleasures one experiences in walking along the shore discovering the curious things brought in and then abandoned by the tides: tangles of kelp on the beach, a jellyfish lying on the sand, species of Cnidaria – anemones, hydrozoa, gorgonia, and the like – resting in tidal pools, organisms which engage our imagination in a Medusa-like way through the complex and seemingly unnatural juxtaposition of surfaces and shapes.
Suspended in space like fantastic jellyfish in the sea, the once fluid qualities of the amorphous solid mimic the cytoplasmic fluidity of life in the forms of the chandeliers. As the transparent, translucent, and the reflective surfaces of green-toned scatter the light, is it hard to believe that it is/was not at one time alive. As our appreciation and enjoyment of glass works grows, we may forget that we are looking at an inanimate object and that the aesthetic experience of which gives us so much pleasure is merely a flickering sensation inside our mind as much due to the particular patterns of neural processes as the forms of the works and determined by the physical nature of the glass as material and the means with which it is worked.
The Golden Celadon Persian Installation, fourteen feet in length and six feet high, has no peers in the show. The supercooled substance, i.e., glass, absorbs ambient light just as marine life ingests and digests nutritional tidbits from the waters around. Life seems to emanate from forms glowing with inner life. One imagines the artist as like as alchemist who condenses some esoteric luminous substance into simulated organic form. Subtly changing tones pulse through the viewer’s consciousness like the surreal worlds that emanated from the mind of Redon two centuries ago.
The nature of the artist’s imagination is another class, order, species, of Cnidaria. Could the imagination of the artist share a common ancestor with the imagination of nature? Could genes produce memes in some yet to be discovered form of mitosis resulting in aesthetic memes in the artist’s imagination and the work of art as the extension of the artist’s imagination? If so, the evolutionary development of aesthetic form might be traced through aesthetic memes in as aesthetic taxonomy as surely as that of genes in The Ancestor’s Tale (Richard Dawkins, 2004), giving new significance to the notion of the ‘inspiration of nature’.
How might one imagine this to be? The shapes of glass art are defined by the artist’s imagination and cannot be called ‘amorphic’ within the limits of what and how we humans can know. With the aid of some slight feints of semantic prestidigitation, one could consider genes and memes as extremes within a continuum that melds the organic and inorganic worlds, i.e., carbonates n silicates. If genes are the clues followed in unraveling The Ancestors’ Tale and memes cultural evolution, reason demands that memes must in some way be related to genes by more than analogy, i.e., as agents that contribute not only to cultural survival but also the survival of the human species. (See writings by Ellen Dissanayake in this regard.) Adding the idea of the ‘selfish aesthetic meme’, to paraphrase Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene (1989) having to ‘compete’ with other memes, what makes Chihuly’s art interesting in this light is that he has to compete with the memes of science and the official art world to assert the visibility of his ideas and insure that his art inorganism survived. In several ways, then, it is interesting to consider Chihuly’s art as subverting any distinction between organic and inorganic domains. This elision extends to the distinction between ‘craft’, that idea use to derogate the art of the marginalized in order to assert the superiority of those at the center of power, and ‘art’. The glass that is use for utilitarian objects is the glass that is used for ‘non-utilitarian’ art. And, as Black Octopus and Crabs Resting on Gilt Vessel reveals, the simulated, art-ificial naturalism of the crab and the octopus and the artificial vessel coexist with out our minds finding any contradiction in their juxtaposition.
Standing over eight feet high, the title of the unique Red Flame Icicle Tower evokes images of flickering flames and frozen icicles, ephemeral fire and solid ice. This large work displayed within the confines of an interior space captivates our attention like fire in the night, drawing us forward as its image burns itself slowly into our consciousness and requiring an almost physical effort to break away. The intense red color and the flame-like-upward-thrusting shapes clustered around the central core seduce one’s mind into ignoring any contradiction between flames and icicles, warm and cold, reaching upwards and hanging downwards. Our minds have reached a point where the laws of the physical world are as if they are no longer true. Imagination offers another dimension where different ‘laws’ apply, a dimension where the ‘laws’ of art define the nature of the reality in that dimension. But this difference exists only in relation to that from which it is different as Through the Looking Glass is related to Alice in Wonderland without specifically referencing to events in the earlier book. If one can so imagine, it is as if Chihuly combined the two stories into one with all the logical contradictions of both in relation to the world and each other.
These large works are no more or less interesting then the smaller soft cylinders, black baskets, and cylinders that make up the rest of the show. The calligraphic lines of the drawn designs on their sides that the artist has worked out in mixed media on paper, strong independent works in their own right, complement the voluptuous, fluid forms of soft cylinders and baskets. Undulating surfaces and serpentine edges celebrate the artist’s ability to capture the fluid quality of molten glass in fixed form. Glistening surfaces belie the fragility of the glass. The forms of these works, too, have the malleability of living organisms. This evidence this is Chihuly’s art is the evidence that suggests that glass is the perfect medium for making art.