Chihuly at Kew Gardens – dialogue between nature and glass

Until 27 October you can see the work of Seattle-based glass artist Dale Chihuly in the grounds and gallery of Kew Gardens, London. The show is called Reflections on Nature and his glass is unmistakable and flamboyant. But he has managed to integrate his vision of the world of natural forms in glass into the real world of organised botanical forms very convincingly.

Sapphire Star, 2010

Chihuly is the mastermind behind a team of glass workers who work with him to create monumental glass sculptures of impressive scale and complexity. The works however are still often dwarfed by the stately trees and green spaces of Kew. There seems to be a mutual respect of stature and gravitas between the two elements, a dialogue between man and nature.

Lime Crystal Tower, 2006
Detail of Lime Crystal Tower
Cattails and Copper Birch Reeds, 2015

Some say Chihuly glass is too bravura and a little crass with colour and shape. I disagree, especially in this context where two heavyweights don’t slug it out but manage to co-exist and more than that – enhance and humanise each other. Chihuly is tamed by nature in a dynamic, living way; the rougher edges of potential populism are integrated into a harmony of democratic forms. It’s a strangely peaceful liaison.

Detail of Red Cattails
Blue Cattails and Purple Reeds, 2015
Detail of Cattails and Reeds

Inside the Temperate House, Chihuly has placed site specific works which inhabit that lofty space with panache and powerful elegance.

Temperate House Persians, 2018
Blue Persians, suspended from roof of Temperate House

Against a blue sky these saucer shaped scallops of glass catch your eye and play against the strict geometric shapes of the formal roof structure.

Down below there are various collections of glass forms which co-exist with the various botanic shapes and forms and playfully add dramatic colour and contrasting shiny textures. Three dimensional splashes of colour or white.

Red Reeds, 2015
Hebron Vessels, 1999

Outside in the Japanese Garden, the atmosphere of zen calm is playfully tampered with by Chihuly’s careful arrangement of Niijima Floats, which break up the space respectfully. The gravel is raked around them, embedding a sense of serenity as well as wonder at the range of textures and colours conjured up by the glass orbs. Some seem heavy, others as light as a feather.

Niijima Floats, 2019

In the Waterlily House Chihuly has installed a stunning response to the room with its pond – Ethereal White Persian Pond – which rises above the still water and the lily pads taking the colour and shape from nature and manipulating these into hovering apparitions in glass which you can walk around 360 degrees. Here the flamboyance of the work is more than matched by the architectural and botanic context.

Ethereal White Persian Pond, 2018

There was one sculpture which didn’t quite work for me, seeming to jar as a work itself as well as within the gardens context – the Scarlet and Yellow Icicle Tower. But you have to admire the ambition of creating a glass structure from 1,882 separate pieces.

Scarlet and Yellow Icicle Tower, 2013

This structure, based on the concept of a chandelier like the one in the Victoria and Albert Museum, works much better as a spectacular companion piece to the large trees around.

Opal and Amber Tower, 2018

A final outdoor sculpture which is sited to maximise its relationship to the architectural space is the fiery orange Summer Sun. This seemed to absorb the late afternoon sun and concentrate the rays into the depths of its orange and yellow swirls and coils.

Summer Sun, 2010

Finally, there were yet more works in the Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art. These explored the various stages of Chihuly’s career, showcasing many of his studio art glass work. Fantastic freedom of line is combined with deft glass blowing to create diverse forms with energetic surface decoration. Here’s a selection of them.

Not all of these are pretty, as Chihuly pushes the boundaries of taste and techniques further than you might like, but they are all impressive in their energy and sheer material defying verve.

The exhibition and sculptural installations are open at Kew Gardens until 27 October 2019. It’s well worth a visit.

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