There is nothing better than skipping out of work early on a Friday afternoon. Made all the sweeter because we don’t do it often, we are on our way to the Chihuly exhibit at the De Young Museum in Golden Gate Park. We are ready for play, and this time I am sure that we will see Mr Chihuly’s work.
The exhibit is popular and the first room is crowded, but not so much so that we can’t spend as much time as we want. It is also buzzing with sounds of sheer delight, except for the comments of an overly intense woman beside me who says authoritatively to her friend, “This is not art; this is just pop culture.” I suppose one could spend one’s life defining what is art, but for me art just is. You know it when you see it. I feel a little sorry for her. I want to tell her, “Just let yourself go. Just enjoy it.”
This is wonderland. To my right, I half expect to see Alice and the Mad Hatter dash out from among the giant pear-shaped gourds from which giant blooms and tendrils sprout.
Against the opposite wall there are row upon row of red, blue, yellow, green, and orange vessels of all shapes and sizes recalling, in their very Chihuly way, Venice and the Murano glass tradition. My favorite is a multi-colored millefiori pattered glass vessel wrapped with white tendrils. It reminds me of an ancient garden where the vines have gone just a little crazy.
In the next room giant undulating disks of yellow and orange tinged with blue and black are floating. My first impression is of giant Tuscan sunflowers, but as I get closer I see that the real action is in the reflections of these luminous disks in black mirrors that seem to be everywhere. Now instead of flowers, I see a gathering of fluttering butterflies. I’m not the only one who hangs back and moves around the edges to watch these creatures at play. Another couple agrees that the reflections are the best. We especially enjoy the view from the end of the long mirrored panel.
Chihuly calls the butterflies the Persians and the commentary talks of evoking the sense of awe that Marco Polo must have experienced on his first trips to the Orient. I’m not sure about Marco Polo but these have filled me with awe and I don’t want to leave them. But leave them I must for the next surprise.
When not full tilt at play, Chihuly often evokes the natural world and man’s interaction with it. In the next room, there are a myriad of woven Northwest Coast Indian baskets with Chihuly’s glass vessels interspersed among them. Everywhere are the colors of reeds and dried tobacco with touches of red and deep brown. Lopsided cylinders, balls, and rectangles jostle for space on the shelves. My favorite Chihulys are the diminutive asymmetrical and elegant vessels that fit in the palm of your hand. And, I admit that many of the baskets, although made not to amaze but to serve the necessities of life, do just that. The imperfections of line and form in both the glass and the baskets imbue them with a sense of seeking–seeking perfection perhaps, and when not finding it, discovering beauty nonetheless.
I move on to a celebration. What better way to celebrate life than with a forest of violet birthday candles. Made at the Nuutajavi Glass Factory in Finland these tall glass spikes are delicate yet strong and evoke the winter light of the northern latitudes. In them, I can see the winter light sifting through the birch forests of Finland.
In the next room are ice cream delights–two banana splits–with all the toppings. But, wait. One of them surely is La Barcaccia, the famous sinking boat fountain by Pietro Bernini that sits at the foot of La Scalinata or the Spanish Steps in Rome. Isn’t it? I am wrong, but I am right. Although born out of Chihuly’s experience watching Finnish children going about in wooden rowboats to collect the glass vessels he had set free on the water to ebb and flow with the current, they can tell your story too.
Moving on I am once again catapulted back to Venice. I enter a dark beamed low ceilinged room like the ones in so many buildings there. Its trompe l’oeil ceiling is an underwater fantasy with squid, star fish, worms, anenomes, and jelly fish suspended among a million brightly colored orbs and vessels. Then I see that this watery world has been invaded by a cherub. He’s lying on his belly resting his head in his hands as though in an eternal daydream. Then I spy another doing a lazy back flip, and another seemingly taking a nap, and another, and another. These delectable tiny glass cherubs are suddenly popping out everywhere. I have the urge to reach up, grab one, and stuff it into my pocket. I am not the only one taken with these heavenly creatures. As I am leaving a woman suddenly exclaims, “There are angels!” and smiles as she points.
The final room of the exhibition houses Chihuly’s Mille Fiori Garden, but I see Heronymous Bosch’s painting of the Garden of Earthly Delights in which he masterly uses exaggeration and distortion to build his amazing landscape. There are spheres, cylinders, and twisted stalks among green blue, orange, and yellow vegetation including ones that look like giant aloe vera plants. At the bottom of the garden is the fiery snake tree twisting upon itself like Medusa’s serpent head. As I turn to leave I think back to the millefiori vase in the first room and realize the obvious–that what Chihuly has done is to create a single immense larger-then-life millefiori. Mr Chihuly is not only a master of glass, he is a master of play, too.
All original content copyright 2008 Mary E. Slocum