Here are some of the highlights — and low points — of Chihuly Garden and Glass at Seattle Center, as well as answers to some fundamental questions about this latest addition to Seattle's cultural landscape.
EXHIBITION REVIEW |
Chihuly Garden and Glass opens Monday at the foot of the Space Needle — 45,000 square feet of galleries and landscaping, with a cafe and gift shop. Devoting this much prime Seattle Center real estate to a ticketed attraction has drawn controversy. But when I set out to review the exhibition, I decided to evaluate what is there, rather than what might have been.
The big question to address: Is there good stuff to see?
The answer: Yes. The overall design is smart and stimulating. You’ll find plentiful, excellent examples of renowned Northwest glass artist Dale Chihuly’s work: big chandeliers and towers, dramatic installations of sea and floral forms, and one of his largest suspended sculptures (for an artist who works large, this is saying something).
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Here are some of the highlights — and low points — of the Chihuly center, as well as answers to some fundamental questions about this latest addition to Seattle’s cultural landscape.
Does Chihuly Garden and Glass improve this area of the Seattle Center?
Absolutely. As much as my kids miss the Fun Forest, I am not sorry to see the vast expanse of cracked asphalt and rickety-looking carnival rides replaced with spaces that are beautifully integrated with their surroundings. Architect Owen Richards worked with Chihuly’s ideas to remodel the old Fun Forest arcade, which now houses eight rooms exhibiting Chihuly’s work, plus the cafe and gift shop.
They also added a modernist glass conservatory, a striking space with arching, white metal beams that visually connects the nearby Pacific Science Center and Space Needle. Although inspired by Chihuly’s love for conservatories, it reads a little like a contemporary cathedral from certain angles, which might underscore the feeling that Chihuly has built a shrine to himself.
This “Glasshouse” is surrounded by my favorite part of the new center, a Wonderlandish garden filled with Chihuly pieces sprouting in color groupings amid gorgeous plantings. Designed by Chihuly and the landscape architecture firm AHBL, the garden successfully bridges the cloistered glass center and the larger Seattle Center around it. From the outside, the garden piques and placates, rather than denies, the curiosity of passers-by by providing many glimpses through and above the ring of trees, plants and fencing.
Does it work as a one-artist museum?
Yes and no. To be fair, the center doesn’t bill itself as such, but it certainly feels like an encapsulation of one man’s art and interests — artistic and otherwise. The wall that greets visitors displays images and text laying out Chihuly’s history through the decades. The interior galleries are arranged to illuminate major facets of his career, from the early experiments with thin, undulating-lipped, expansive vessels, to globular floats and vertical reeds, to massive, intricate chandeliers that have been installed all over the world.
For Chihuly fans, these displays should be very satisfying. I heard a lot of whispered “Wows!” when I visited last week. One of the most unexpected installations features glass forms of varied shapes and vibrant colors spilling over the edges of two large wooden boats. Inspired by a practical decision to float pieces down a river in Finland to get them to their installation sites under bridges, this configuration suggests the fluid creativity of the Northwest’s most famous glass artist.
But here’s the downside: the fact that this center was designed by the artist, during his lifetime, and includes not just Chihuly’s art but many of his personal collections, from Native American basketry to vintage glass Christmas ornaments. It generates inevitable narcissistic undertones.
There’s a kind of self-centered, but unselfconscious, joyfulness to the whole shebang that’s hard to resist, particularly in the cafe, where a charming collection — of fishing lures, old transistor radios, old clocks — is embedded in each table top. You can almost hear Chihuly saying, “Look at all these cool things!”
And therein lies the problem. Chihuly is present in a way that doesn’t offer much insight into his work or into glass in general, even though Chihuly has been such a force in that world. If you want to understand the techniques and contexts of glassmaking, head down to the Museum of Glass in Tacoma.
Is it worth the $15-$19 price of adult admission?
Hmmm, probably not. There are some pretty remarkable installations, the Glasshouse is magnificent to experience from the inside, and the garden offers eccentric yet tranquil spots to rest during a visit to Seattle Center, but I can’t imagine paying that much to visit even semi-regularly. This leads me to suppose the price structure is set up for one-time visitors. In order to encourage multiple visits, perhaps Chihuly Garden and Glass will revisit its pricing or find some other way to draw locals in.
Art historian Gayle Clemans teaches at Cornish College of the Arts and regularly writes about visual arts for The Seattle Times.