A transformational experience

"Breathtaking!" was a frequently heard description of Dale Chihuly's artwork on display at the Frederick R. Weisman Museum of Art at Pepperdine. Thursday's reception marked the opening of the exhibition, sponsored by KCET. Dominating the main gallery, "Lapis and Chartreuse Tower" drew attention and awe. Photos by Joel Ball / TMT

Pepperdine University welcomes artist Dale Chihuly

By Kim Devore/Special to The Malibu Times

It’s sensuous, it’s monumental, organic in form, kaleidoscopic in color. It’s the work of famed glass artist Dale Chihuly. Beginning this week, Chihuly’s hypnotic creations can be seen at Pepperdine University’s Frederick R. Weisman Museum of Art.

The exhibit opened with a special preview on Thursday evening. Art lovers, including Pierce Brosnan and wife Keely Shaye Smith, were among those marveling at the larger-than-life ornaments of design. “There was a Chihuly piece at the hotel where Pierce shot his last movie,” Shaye Smith recalled. “It was just beautiful.”

Ruthie Russ drove all the way from Laguna Beach to see the artist in person. The diminutive 60-something collector said she’s been a fan for more than two decades. “He’s exiting. He’s colorful. He’s sexual too … can I say sexual?”

Up on the museum’s top floor, Seattle’s guru of glass was the center of attention. With his mop of wiry hair, trademark eye patch and paint splattered sneakers, Chihuly was greeted with the kind of awe usually reserved for rock stars. Fans fawned and gushed as they lined up for photos and angled for autographs.

One look around and it was easy to see why. Immense works of glass appeared to be floating, dancing and exploding everywhere. They sparkled like gems in neon shades of lime green, electric blue, lemon yellow, tangerine, violet, crimson and gold. The exhibit features an eye-popping array of the artist’s favorite works including dozens of sculptures, nine different series, an enormous 18-foot tower and an intricate 10-foot chandelier. It’s no wonder that they took the better part of a week to install.

“This is by far the most elaborate and extensive project we have ever undertaken,” museum director Michael Zakian said. His verdict? “It’s more amazing than I ever imagined. It was also a lot more work than I ever imagined.”

The installation began last week when two semis loaded with immense wooden containers pulled up to campus. Chihuly’s crew then worked for days, carefully unloading the one-of-a-kind hand blown creations. Some of the pieces are sturdier than they might look. Others, like the bubble-shaped baskets, are not.

“The baskets are incredibly thin,” Zakian explained. “That made me a little nervous.”

To showcase the collection, the museum walls were painted a light gray, each piece was carefully mounted and special lights were installed to bring out the beauty of the glass. The result is a magical Alice in Wonderland experience that’s not to be missed.

Over the course of four decades, Dale Chihuly has become one of the most admired and collected glass artists in the world. “He transformed the way we see glass,” Zakian explained. “Before Chihuly, glass was limited to small decorative art objects-the glass candy bowls your grandmother had. He made glass into a medium suited to contemporary art. It’s the scale and the fact he arranges his pieces in a way that utilizes the entire space.”

How does he do it?

Chihuly said he lets his instincts be his guide. “I don’t really think about what I do very much,” he explained. “It just happens.”

What takes shape is an ongoing journey that never ceases to astound. “My forms are very organic. You think ‘was it made by nature or was it made by man?’ That’s glass. It’s transparent, its opaque, it just makes me feel good.”

Pepperdine is one of three venues that will celebrate the artist’s impressive career. Other examples of the artist’s work can be seen at the L.A. Louver Gallery in Venice and the Frank Lloyd Gallery in Santa Monica.

As far as Zakian is concerned, it’s an event that’s not to be missed.

“I think what’s so incredible is the transformational experience. This really is a spirit-lifting show. When they see it, people’s jaws drop open. It really is spectacular beyond words.”

The Pepperdine exhibit runs through March 20.