Visual Arts Review | Thru May 11 Just before the trio of Dale Chihuly-related exhibits at the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art was open to the public, I had the opportunity to witness the hubbub of mid-installation. Fire Work: The Art of Dale Chihuly was already installed in all its reflective wonder. Wrapped in Tradition: The Chihuly Collection of American Indian Trade Blankets was half up with many of the blankets already draped over their specially designed vertical looms. Indiana Collects the West: Chihuly was still just a room full of unopened crates. This, of course, generated quite a bit of anticipation on my part. Having previewed these exhibits just a couple of weeks ago for this publication, and having viewed Chihuly"s wondrous glassworks before, I was looking forward to the treasures that were now being unfurled like pirate"s booty uncovered from the depths of some glittering sea.
Work by Dale Chihuly is on display at the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art.
So when I had the chance to view the entire spread this past weekend, I had willingly ventured through yet another light-filled wonderland: the generous inches of snow that lay upon us like a great blanket Sunday morning. On this day, then, as most stayed home snowbound, the treasures of the galleries were (almost) all mine and my daughter"s to behold. Chihuly"s glass is said by some to rival the beauty of nature itself. Indeed, it may be a variation on that theme; his glass pieces from the "Persians" series - the pieces which primarily comprise the Fire Work portion of the three-part exhibit - are stunning caverns of impossibly delicate glass cradling smaller, similarly dramatic pieces like great bowls of glinting fruit. In the eyes of an 8-year-old, these are natural forms, and unnatural ones; my daughter compared pieces to sea coral and trumpets. The aforementioned pieces, selected by Tacoma-born Chihuly himself, comprised a fine sampling of the artist"s smaller scale art. His installation work as seen in venues across the globe from Venice to Jerusalem generates an even more fantastical array of comparisons: his Garfield Park Conservatory (Chicago) installation, Gardens of Glass, for instance, was a self-contained world of natural and Chihuly-imagined flora. At the Eiteljorg, one gets a glimpse of one of Chihuly"s many aesthetic inspirations. His private collection of Indian trade blankets, on view alongside his glass cylinders inspired by their designs, however, give us something more. They bring out the best of the Eiteljorg"s ability to connect Native American arts with historical and contemporary culture. The blankets and cylinders share the main gallery space with items from the museum"s own collection of artifacts and Native American functional arts that inspired the trade blanket designs - and eventually, artists such as Chihuly. American Indian trade blankets were created by U.S. companies and used for barter with Native tribes. They were appealing to Indians for their designs that riffed on their own patterns, so the blankets held some nostalgic appeal. They were often traded for valuable commodities to the white man such as beaver skins. Among the woolen mills producing at the time, Pendleton is the only one still in operation; and the Eiteljorg has commissioned a limited run of one of its early designs - "Dr. Whirlwind" - that is on sale at the museum"s gift shop. The design, named after a photograph taken by Maj. Lee Moorhouse of Dr. Whirlwind, a member of the Cayuse tribe of eastern Oregon, is a historic Jacquard pattern originally produced from 1915 to 1920. This and other trade blanket motifs carry universal and tribal-specific symbols in their designs; "rain falling from clouds," for example, is a Pueblo symbol; the "star" symbol is universal; and the "evening star" symbol is associated with women. Chihuly"s blanket-inspired cylinders are a dramatic departure from his fragile concoctions upstairs. Solid, vertical structures, these, instead, are more like canvases for his special technique of pulling colored glass rods into long, thin threads that allow the artist, in effect, to make drawings out of glass. The Indiana Collects portion of the exhibit, however, is more akin to Chihuly"s better-known seaforms and "Persians" series: This roomful of pieces is a fine sampling of Chihuly"s work from the "80s to the present. Having viewed these works prior to and after their final presentation only added to the sense of wonder. A great deal of trial and error - and in Chihuly"s case, a great deal of broken glass - contribute to what we, the audience, see in its final, polished form. The process, though, is a miracle equal to the product. Inspiration, after all, comes from a mysterious and sacred place. Chihuly"s glass and Chihuly"s Pendletons are on view through May 11 at the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art, 500 W. Washington St., 636-9389,www.eiteljorg.org