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The Artful Traveler: Richard Jolley’s Brave New World


Richard Jolley, Cycle of Life Primordial Emergence Flight

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.

Richard Jolley, Cycle of Life (Desire, Tree of Life, Contemplation)
Richard Jolley, Cycle of Life (Desire, Tree of Life, Contemplation)

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 Birds  have been replaced by a 22-foot tree of life with pomegranate blossoms and white doves  perched on steel branches.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.

Richard Jolley, Cycle of Life Sky detail
Richard Jolley, Cycle of Life Sky detail

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.


Visit Knoxville Museum of Art 


bl    Bobbie Leigh has written for many national publications including The Wall Street Journal, Travel & Leisure, andDepartures. Currently she is a New York correspondent for Art & Antiques.

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1 Comment

  1. Ellen Glass Birger
    May 23, 2014 at 8:27 am — Reply

    Bobbie, It is a lovely review of what sounds like a lovely show. I wish Knoxville were easier to get to from here! The museum itself sounds very worthwhile, has its own identity. Keep sending me stuff — did you say you had done something about the Degenerat Art show at the Neue? I’d love to see it if you have. Have a great trip to Paris if I don’t see y0u in class before — how long will you be away? Ellen

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