Glass act

Dale Chihuly opening at Lowe Gallery a smash

On Jan. 11, Buckhead experienced a seismic Chihuly Effect. It’s been a long time since that stretch of Peachtree Street has seen a traffic jam of such magnitude — a half-mile of cars and tremendous foot traffic were all headed to the opening of Dale Chihuly at the Lowe Gallery. When the number of people inside the gallery swelled to excess, new arrivals stood patiently in lines outside both doors, waiting their turn to enter. Close to 1,000 people surged through the space to view the artist’s latest glass sculpture and to see him in person, seated behind a table buzzing with ga-ga gawkers who queued up to get his autograph on catalogues and books.

Born in 1941 in Tacoma, Wash., Chihuly has become somewhat of a legend for his amazing work with glass. His black eye patch only adds to his mystique. Contrary to popular mythology, Chihuly didn’t lose his sight in one eye as the result of a glass blowing incident, but in a serious car accident some 25 years ago.

He’s been working with glass since 1965, when he blew his first glass bubble in his basement studio. The artist hasn’t had a literal hand in his creations for more than 20 years; he communicates his designs through drawings that are executed in glass by gaffers. His collaborative approach to sculpture stems from time spent at the Venini factory in Venice, Italy, where he worked with teams of Italian glassblowers.

Chihuly has achieved renown for challenging notions of art versus craft while blurring the lines between abstraction and representation. His sculpted glass simultaneously evokes the natural and the synthetic. For his inventiveness, he’s received Fulbright fellowships and National Endowment for the Arts grants. He’s been featured in umpteen museum shows. Beyond that, Chihuly is an unabashedly huge commercial success. He’s practically a household name for the rich and famous. Recent commissions include architectural installations in monumental hotels such as the Bellagio in Las Vegas and Atlantis on Paradise Island in the Bahamas. This year, his glass act will be on view at the Olympic Arts Festival in Salt Lake.

As for his show at the Lowe: Unlike the usual multi-artist exhibitions in the space, all 13,000 square feet have been turned over to Chihuly’s diaphanous glass work and rough gestural drawings. In the large gallery, a wide wooden boat is loaded with colorific blown glass shapes — gourds, flutes, spiraling cones and great shafts — in translucent rainbow hues. “Northern Blue Persian Wall,” vastly more lyrical, blooms across two sides of the room. Already sold to a private Atlanta collector for $540,000, this installation of the artist’s signature fluted glass flowers is an array of blues, with orange-red lip wraps. Sexy nomenclature, “lip wraps” are the contrasting colored edges on many of his glass forms. The repetitive shapes and titles that he gives the sculptures — “Aurora Orange Basket Set,” “Lupine Blue Basket Set” — indicate only slight variations on each theme. The “Gilded Chrome Chandelier” in the front space is a vivid cluster of squiggly snake forms, high contrast to the open pods and shell shapes in the “Seaform” sets meant for tabletops.

Indeed, the alchemist has transcended the glass blower’s artisan status, elevating the manipulation of molten glass to the level of very fine decorative art. But will the Chihuly Effect turn glass into the new bronze, a classical fine art? That will likely take more than his magic.

Dale Chihuly runs through Feb. 23 at Lowe Gallery, 75 Bennett St., Space A-2, Tues.-Fri. 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m., Sat. 11 a.m.-5:30 p.m. 404-352-8114.