Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Phoenix 2014 - Chihuly - Glass in a Garden

One of the activities I was most looking forward to on this trip was a visit to the Phoenix Botanical Gardens and their exhibit of glass sculptures by the artist Chihuly. The gardens are located in either Scottsdale, Tempe or Phoenix depending on whose phone GPS we were consulting at any given time. I had viewed a similar exhibit at Chicago's Garfield Park Conservatory some years back. My understanding is that these exhibits are created and curated to be site specific, the artwork displayed to seem integral to their surroundings, not incidental. One of my hosts mentioned on the drive over that viewing the art and gardens would be one aspect of the visit, viewing the other visitors another equally and as it turned out entertaining aspect.

The botanical gardens are unique in that, being located outdoors all specimens need to be able to withstand the sometimes harsh climactic conditions of the Arizona desert. We began in the wildflower loop. Due to the rains of the previous week the area was a riot of color. One of the state's famous red rock formations loomed above as if keeping a watchful eye on the desert blossoms.

The sculptures twisted and wound in a profusion of brilliant shades among the seemingly endless varieties of cactus and succulents. Some of the flowers and plants brought back memories of my childhood years in L.A., whose climate shares many of the characteristics of it's eastern cousin. Large mutihued globes rested on the ground in some places. Spikes of orange, purple and red glass towered above them. A boat in a small pond surrounded by reeds held a sculpture resembling a pile of impossibly colored gourds. Other works sat in the water nearby looking like icebergs resisting the urge to melt away in the bright sunlight. A hanging piece which brought to mind gaily colored children's balls stirred slightly in the gentle breeze. My host's favorite piece was located in a small plaza, a spiky white and purple tower surrounded by delicate transparent sculptures resembling blown glass Easter lilies.

As the sun set the glass artworks reflected the glow from the spotlights trained on them. A series of neon panels created a spectacle on an adjacent hillside. While the light accentuated the form of the artworks the darkness divorced them from the surroundings that they were so skillfully designed to integrate with.

The gardens were crowded, due in part to several weddings taking place that Saturday afternoon. Our people watching switched into high gear. At one reception being held in an outdoor pavilion the attendants were attired in gray and lavender. Several of the women, all of whom appeared to use the exact same shade of blond haircoloring, had tresses piled so high they rivaled in complexity the sculptures on exhibit. Some of the coiffures would have made the most skilled drag queens green with envy. One woman's hair in particular stood out so tall and wide it made me wonder how she was able to get in and out of a car door.

Another ceremony, being presided over by both a minister and a rabbi, was held in a small tree shaded alcove. The bride's dress was a simple, full length, off white affair. The groom was dressed in what, I was later to discover, was a form of "Phoenix Formal", a dark shirt, tie and vest. The look was finished off by blue jeans and motorcycle boots. Later we watched as the guests filed by on their way to the reception, being held in another portion of the gardens. Some of the men wore ties, albeit with short sleeves, blue jeans and gym shoes. We got particular amusement from the young teenage girl wearing a hoodie over her Forever 21 party dress.

There was one in the gardens that day whose appearance rose the bar so high that she almost defies description, however I will make a stab at it. Large, black and imposing she wore her hair in a series of curls atop her head making it appear almost as if she were sporting a dark tiara. Her dress had a large, full, multi layered skirt. The top layer was cinched up in places creating a row of swags encircling her. Black eyelet formed the bottom most layer. Her crowning glory was the tiny eyelet parasol edged with black lace which she carried proudly over her head. My host remarked that she looked like an African American Baby Jane in mourning. As she strode through the crowd she turned heads...not in a good way.

There was the fellow in plaid shirt and tie, jeans and sneakers whose gray hair looked as if he had removed a motorcycle helmet without smoothing it down afterwards. There was the morbidly obese woman wearing an outfit of clinging jersey. The varieties seemed as numerous as the varieties of plants exhibited in the gardens that day.

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