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Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Paine curator offers in-depth look at Dale Chihuly exhibition

Artwork of glass master catches the eye.

PHOTO: Laura Fiser, Paine Art Center and Gardens curator of collections, stands amid blown glass artworks in the “Chihuly Venetians” exhibition. Warren Gerds photo

OSHKOSH, WISC., (WFRV) – Dale Chihuly is the most famous name in art glass today, with splashy exhibitions and standing displays popping up all over the map. Public installations can be found in 36 states. Paine Art Center and Gardens until Oct. 13 has a sumptuous display of “Chihuly Venetians.”

An overview of the exhibition is at www.thepaine.org. That site covers high points.

Worth noting from there are related events that remain on the calendar:

- “A History of the Studio Glass Movement and Dale Chihuly’s Role,” noon, Tuesday, Sept. 17. Presented by Jan Mirenda Smith, executive director of Bergstrom-Mahler Museum. Includes Harvey Littleton’s classes and the students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where Chihuly studied from 1966 to 1967, and a look at the growth of the movement and the influence of Chihuly and his studio.

- “Chihuly’s Artistry, Innovation and Whimsy,” 2 p.m. Sept. 22. Presented by Laura Fiser, Paine curator of collections and exhibitions.

- “Venetians and Vivaldi,” Sept. 29 – 1 p.m. viewing exhibition, 2 p.m. Italian food and wine tasting, 3 p.m. music of Venice-born composer Antonio Vivaldi performed by the Oshkosh Symphony Orchestra Ensemble. Additional charge.

In interviews, Paine curator of collections and exhibitions Laura Fiser provided further insights into the exhibition that graces the main gallery of the 1920s-era museum.

One striking point of note is the “Chihuly Venetians” exhibition comes from one source, the George R. Stroemple Collection.

Fiser said Stroemple “is passionate about studio glass. He is a very private collector, somewhat of a recluse, from what his curator tells me. But his passion is collecting glass and then sharing it with museum audiences. And so he does not have pieces on view in his home. It’s not for his personal enjoyment, but it’s for preserving these pieces, the legacy of the studio glass movement, in particular Dale Chihuly’s work. Mr. Streomple, I believe, has the most significant private collection of Chihuly’s work.”

That approach to collecting art is quite different – that Stroemple doesn’t think of having the pieces at his home.

Fiser agreed, adding, “In fact, I hear that he has pieces primarily in his warehouse, and then he very generously lends to museums. His curator says that it is very rare for him to ever decline a loan request because of his generosity and his passion for sharing these works with the public.”

How did it come to be that the Paine has this exhibition?

Fiser said, “We have long sought a Chihuly exhibition because Dale Chihuly is the world’s most-celebrated glass artist, and we could visualize a fantastic, over-the-top exhibition in our main gallery. Unfortunately, the Chihuly Studio typically works in much larger markets on multi-million-dollar projects. So their projects are a little too expensive and large for the Paine and our gallery space. And so we started thinking of ways to borrow Chihuly works – and our exhibitions committee has long been looking for the right fit for the Paine. We found out that Mr. Stroemple had lent this collection to a museum in Tennessee, the Hunter Museum of Art in Chattanooga. We then decided to pursue him and were able to track down his curator and work with her. And she developed this tour with us in mind. We were the first venue to contact her with interest, and then she built a tour of four venues around our interest and around our desired timeslot. So it’s kind of tailor-made for the Paine.”

Fiser was asked this: From what’s in the exhibition, why does she think Stroemple selected the works he did?

“This exhibition focuses on a specific series. Chihuly works in series. There are a dozen or so series that he revisits over the years – sea forms, Persian, Macchia and many others. The Venetian series is what we are showcasing. Mr. Stroemple is very passionate about specific aspects of Chihuly’s work, and the Venetian series particularly appealed to him as a collector because of its ties to Venice, which is a centuries-old center of glass making. Murano is an island off the coast of Venice. Mr. Stroemple was passionate about that particular series and the fact that Chihuly was partnering with glass masters from Murano, in particular Lino Tagliapietra and Pino Signoretto. Mr. Stroemple went to Chihuly’s hot shop when they were making these pieces and would get up at 3 in the morning to drive to Seattle so he could be at the hot shop by 6 a.m. He would stand in the corner and watch these pieces being made, very discreet. He was interested in Chihuly’s inspiration that was drawn from Venice and in that partnership, and it was ground breaking to have the partnership between the American master and the very secretive Italian masters. Mr. Stroemple, I think, wanted to document that, and many of the pieces that he owns from the Venetian series are pieces that Chihuly intended for his own private collection and archives but Mr. Stroemple was able to convince him to sell the pieces to him. For every piece that was made in our exhibition, Mr. Stroemple was there. So these pieces hold special meaning for him. They’re also significant for Chihuly, and many critics say that the Venetians have more personality than a lot of his other works. They’re very vibrant, whimsical, fanciful, and I think Mr. Stroemple really loves those pieces. When they were thinking of an exhibition that could travel from his collection, this seemed to be the most cohesive. The vessels relate to the magnificent chandelier called the ‘Laguna Murano,’ which was inspired by the lagoon that surrounds the island of Murano. The Venetian theme is very strong. It’s a great educational aspect because you can talk about the parallels with the Venetian traditions and how Chihuly has gone a step farther and always taking things to a new level of innovation.”

Among the four Wisconsin places with public installations of Chihuly art is the Weidner Center for the Performing Arts at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. A chandelier high in the main foyer continually stirs a buzz. Prior to its installation, I visited Chihuly’s studio and home in Seattle and saw many aspects of his art behind the scenes. And I’ve seen Chihuly pieces around the country. Still, when visiting the Paine, I was like a lot of visitors there, based on Fiser’s observations as a fly on the wall.

She said, “The chandelier stops people in their tracks.”

The “Laguna Murano” is large and largely at eye level. As you turn the corner into the gallery, it is RIGHT THERE, saying, “I’M HERE.”

Fiser said, “It’s a magnificent, five-element chandelier. There are three large sculptural floor components and then two hanging components. It’s made up of over 1,500 pieces of glass, and it’s absolutely stunning in person. It features a lot of whimsical details such as fantastical sea creatures inspired by the Venetian lagoon. Those sea creatures were made by Chihuly in partnership with Pino Signoretto and his workshop on the island of Murano, and then he worked with Lino Tagliapietra in his workshop on Murano making the blown glass elements and then completed the piece in Seattle. Many critics consider that to be the most important Chihuly chandelier in existence because of the partnership, and it’s the only one that was begun on Murano and completed in Seattle.”

The chandelier aside, “I think all of the (47 other glass) pieces are really spectacular in their own right. They’re so interesting. He was inspired by 1920s and 1930s Art Deco Venetian glass, but then he quickly turned them into something much more and very unusual. I love the pieces with a lot of spikes. They’re just so luminous. The color combinations are unbelievable. We have a DVD on view in an adjacent gallery called ‘Chihuly and the Hot Shop.’ It’s a documentary showing him working with glass blowers who have worked with him over the course of his career, and it shows how the putti (cherubs with wings) Venetians were made, and we have over a dozen putti Venetians in our exhibition. Once you see how they’re made – they’re pinched and pulled and sculpted out of hot molten glass – they become so unbelievable. Most people want to look at the exhibition, look at the DVD, then go back and look at the exhibition. That really makes them much more appreciative of all of the craftsmanship and the details and the fact that they’re hand made and overwhelming.”

Fiser is especially drawn to large bottle stoppers displayed by themselves.

“He was inspired by Art Deco perfume bottles – really miniature, tiny vessels with decorative tops, and they corked into the vessel component. So often what Chihuly does – which is what makes him so innovative and avant garde – is take something that’s very small or has been made a certain way traditionally for years and then turn it upside down or make it enormous. With the bottle stopper series, he’s made the vessels mind-blowingly large. It’s really a feat of glassblowing, and he partnered with the two Italian masters on that series – the blown component on the base and then the sculpted glass for the toppers, with hot, molten glass sculpted by hand and modeled by hand. They are magnificent creations. And very whimsical, too. Some putti figures – those little baby cherub type figures – are shown within some stylized flowers and a tree, and it’s just so decorative and beautiful but also funny. The baby figures add whimsy to the piece, and any glassblower who comes in and sees the bottle stoppers says that only Chihuly, the American master, and the two Italian masters could have created such a tour de force work of art in glass sculpture, that they really are feats in and of themselves. They’re beautiful, from the subtle bubbles in the blown-glass component to the sculpted figures on the top. They’re just stunning.”

If Fiser sounds like she knows the pieces in the exhibition inside and out, she does because she’s the chief duster/cleaner. She was kiddingly asked if she’s not sleeping well lately.

“Well, it’s quite nerve-wracking,” she said. “Handling glass is very daunting, it’s so fragile.”

Fiser was trained by Chihuly’s installers.

“The Venetians are characterized by their fanciful ornamentation. There’s a lot of what they call bit work on the exterior. So there are coils and spikes and putti and feathers and leaves and flowers that are fused during the glass-blowing process. They’re made separately and fused to the surface. Of course, one worries about the fragility of those elements that are fused to the exterior of the vessel. You can’t grab those. You have to very carefully place each and every object. From the small piccolo Venetians to the larger putti Venetians, all of them are handled with great care and dusted almost daily. It’s a unique balance between too caffeinated and not caffeinated enough. You need to approach it only with the right mind set.”

The installation of the “Laguna Murano” is a three-day process by four experts.

“Each time the chandelier is installed, it’s installed by hand free form – and it’s over 1,500 pieces of glass. The team installing the chandelier composes it anew each and every time at each site, so it’s a site-specific installation. For the first time, it’s been installed on a reflective material that looks like water. You can see a reflection of the underside hanging components of the chandelier. It’s never been installed this way before. I think that adds to the drama and the impact when people first enter the gallery and they see the chandelier. It’s just a magnificent installation of glass, and it truly does take your breath away.”

Some people may be surprised to learn that Chihuly doesn’t blow glass or shape it anymore. The physical part of the creation is done by others. Chihuly deals with ideas and designs. Fiser summed his role up this way: “He views himself more as a conductor than musician, or a chorographer rather than a dancer.”

It is quite a different realm. Which makes Chihuly Chihuly.

Please email me at warren.gerds@wearegreenbay.com.

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