This week in The Stranger, visual art editor Jen Graves writes about a lawsuit brought by Chihuly Inc. against a glassblower and a glass dealer accused of making and selling knockoffs of Dale Chihuly’s art. But is it Dale Chihuly’s if Dale Chihuly didn’t actually make it? And is it art if it’s made in a factory? What happens to an artist when he becomes a corporation? These are the questions Graves addresses in "Glass Houses." Here online, Graves talks to Stranger arts editor Christopher Frizzelle about the personalities involved in these lawsuits, the blight that is Tacoma’s Bridge of Glass, and the way that Chihuly’s best work is similar to a really good synchronized swimming movie.

Frizzelle: Dale Chihuly strikes me as sort of creepy. Is he creepy?

Graves: I don’t know. I’ve only met him once, in 2002, and he seemed utterly harmless. I expected more vim and vigor from him. I expected a guy who could push people around, because obviously he’s spent his career pushing people around and they haven’t minded. Until now.

You’ve spent the last six years living in Tacoma and looking at Chihuly’s Bridge of Glass. What do you think of it?

It’s terrible. The Bridge of Glass is terrible. And I never wrote about it when I was in Tacoma because I was worried that someone would try to kill me. It has completely revolutionized downtown Tacoma, but as art it is a complete failure. It is a concrete slab with some art thown up on it. The art has nothing to do with its location. It’s all recycled work. You’re looking at a wall of Venetian vases, these bong-like things, and there’s like 70 of them, so you end up with this kind of Baskin-Robbins mentality, like, Today I’ll have that one. This is glass, outdoors, and it’s completely covered, with video camera surveillance, and air control so that no steam gets in there, because if steam gets in there you can’t see the glass, but it’s not outdoor work. The one piece that is outdoor work is this plastic thing that looks like giant aqua rock candy, so gift shops have been making and selling aqua rock candy as souvenirs. This is what downtown Tacoma is supposed to mean? After going through the humiliation of losing the railroad terminus to Seattle, and being the laughingstock of Puget Sound—this aqua rock candy is what represents the rebirth of Tacoma? I don’t know what happened there. I think Dale just wanted to experiment with aqua rock candy–looking shit, and no one talked him out of it, because no one is powerful enough to talk him out of it. Akron, Ohio, recently purchased some rock candy towers for their city from Chihuly Inc. The good thing is you can shoot them, and the bullets will just sort of glance off, the art won’t break. So feel free to shoot them.

The Stranger has historically hated glass art. What do you think?

I think it’s a sort of performance for a critic to hate a whole medium. It just depends on the work. There’s a woman’s whose glass art I like, Judith Schaechter, and her work is interesting and disgusting. A lot of glass artists ignore the vulgarity of glass, I think to their detriment.

And what about Chihuly? Is any of the work he’s done good?

That’s the question, right? What has Chihuly actually done? He’s mostly the organizer of something that can be interesting. You know, he’s compared himself to a director, and I think he is a director, and occasionally he does something that’s very Broadway musical, and it succeeds in that realm.

What do you mean?

His good work is like synchronized swimming movies. Have you ever seen an early synchronized swimming movie with Esther Williams? There are like 1,000 people in the pool and they’re all choreographed in this incredibly precise way, and it’s shallow, but it’s also spectacular. The standalone works that Chihuly puts out, well, they don’t stand alone. And they’re obviously just for sale, these little blips of flamboyance that don’t go any farther. And I find them really maddening. But his major installations can sort of gang up on you in a way. His ceiling in the Bellagio in Las Vegas is a perfect example of a success for him, and it’s for reasons that he would hate. It’s excessive and it’s bloated and it’s over the top, like the hotel’s all-you-can-eat brunch. But he would hate that I think that. I think he would say that ceiling is beautiful and elegant.

There are a lot of people in your story in this week’s Stranger who refused to talk. How come so many people declined to comment?

Dale has given a lot of people their careers.

So they’re afraid of him?

No, I don’t think so, not Dale himself. I think they’re afraid of the machine. He built that market. People are selling glass because Dale is selling glass. There are definitely people who have worked for him who’ve become terribly disgruntled, but I try not to talk to them because they’re motivated by their own reasons. But even Dale’s people don’t talk! They’re the squirreliest bunch in the world and I think that’s really dumb. But I think it has to do with this question about what Dale actually does, and I suspect they don’t want to get into a conversation about what Dale actually does. And they don’t want to get into a conversation about how much stuff is actually produced. Because then the next question is, "How could one person be involved with this much stuff?"

What do people think of Chihuly personally?

I think he’s a fragile person. And maybe people want to protect him right now because his mother just died last month—she was 98 years old and still living in the Tacoma house where Dale was raised. That’s understandable. But also Dale’s been slammed. He’s been super-criticized over the years. And he’s sensitive, that’s without a doubt. Plus, he doesn’t need the media. Why would he need them? He has his own market. He makes his own weather.

Tell me about this website www.chihulyscrewedme.com. The guy behind that website didn’t make it into your story.

So there was a dealer in Hawaii who felt that Chihuly Inc. had screwed him out of a large commission and he says that when he complained to Chihuly Inc. his contract was canceled, even though he was one of the largest dealers of Chihuly’s works in the nation, according to him. He feels it was retaliation. At some point he also started sending e-mails to Chihuly’s publishing company asking specific questions about Dale’s involvement in the production of certain pieces. When the answers came back vague or not satisfying to him, he became suspicious, and now he says he’s going to file a suit against Chihuly Inc. for fraud. Basically he’s alleging the same thing that was behind the Salvador Dalí fraud case, where Dalí would sign his name to a piece of paper and someone else would stamp an image on it. He’s claiming the same thing about Chihuly, but right now he is awaiting final arbitration in a suit Chihuly filed against him for defamation, for making the website www.chihulyscrewedme.com.

What kind of stuff is on this website?

It’s not a levelheaded website. There are some substantive things, like e-mails that he exchanged with distributors of Dale’s work about Dale’s involvement in making the work, and then there’s stuff like him calling Chihuly Inc. "greed whores" and him writing things such as, "The only reasonable conclusion one can come to now is that the rumors of my unbridled paranoia are clearly the industry of mean people out to get me. But you may want to keep your distance anyway, because I’m radioactive as hell." It’s really weird. And there’s also an indignant anecdote about a woman who found two pieces of stolen Chihuly art and Dale didn’t even thank her—it’s a wild range of rabid commentary.

It’s a wild cast of characters associated with these lawsuits. Like the guy in your story, Robert Kaindl, who said he’d been producing major glass works for 30 years and also that he’d set a golf record, that he’d played professional basketball, that he’d been the nation’s youngest-ever pilot, and a couple other claims that didn’t check out when you looked into them.

It is a wild cast of characters. It’s a completely wild cast of characters. I was telling a curator friend about this, and we were joking, because he was saying something about how the people who orbit around artists are just so… vivid.

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jgraves@thestranger.com