The Artful Traveler: Richard Jolley’s Brave New World
Reviewed by Bobbie Leigh
Cycle of Life: Within the Power of Dreams and the Wonder of Infinity is a new permanent art installation at the Knoxville Museum of Art. Like all great works of art, it breaks the rules. Jolley, a highly praised artist who lives and works in Knoxville, has given us something that pulls the viewer into a new experience: An art installation, huge and monumental—100 plus running feet and 12 feet high – that tells a creation story from birth to afterlife. It is billed as one of the largest figurative glass-and-steel assemblages in the world. Yet this massive work consisting of tons of patinated metal, cast and blown glass, weighing more than seven tons is refined, subtle, and lyrical. It flows from one end of the museum’s Ann and Steve Bailey Hall to the other, broken only by a staircase leading to a mezzanine.
Cycle of Life is thematically divided into seven meditations on the progression of life, each flowing smoothly from one to another like one of Beethoven’s songful legatos. First you are enthralled by what Jolley calls primordial elements: poplar trees with glass-blown leaves and thistles in winter moonlight, a large-scale male and female figure walking together, and 135 blown-glass black birds in flight. They are “symbolic of growth, freedom, and our journey through life,” according to the artist.
Then, you are caught up in “maturity, symbolic of maturation, fulfillment, and abundance.” Here the man and woman are not separate but the man reclines while the woman reaches out to him. Birds have been replaced by a 22-foot tree of life with pomegranate blossoms and white doves perched on steel branches. At the far north end is a large divided glass face through which light passes, perhaps the marking point in this life cycle of where the soul or spirit leaves this earthly planet and moves to some sort of cosmic reality. This is represented by Sky, a huge series of multi-colored silvered glass orbs, suspended from the ceiling in the center of the 30-foot high Ann and Steve Bailey Hall. Flanking Sky is Metaphysical, which has steel branches strung with blue glass spheres, stunning celestial bubbles, that spread like great arms to embrace and link the entire installation.
The KMA opened in 1990 and was designed by the Modernist architect Edward Larrabee Barnes. Recently renovated, its Tennessee pink marble exterior is as understated as its spacious galleries. The KMA is an exhilarating place to look at art because of its architecture and also because it is not trying to become a little MoMA. Instead, much of the art, both past and present has ties to East Tennessee. Beyond that, Curator Stephen C. Wicks with his current show “Facets of Modern and Contemporary Glass,” on view through July 27, has a totally different perspective on what is traditionally known as studio glass or glass art. Instead, he is presenting works by conceptual artists like Fred Wilson and Ivan Navarro among others who are shifting the boundaries of what is possible with glass as an art medium.
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