Neon On Ice -- Glass Artist Dale Chihuly Finds Tacoma Dome The Perfect Venue For His Neon Sculptures

Arts review Dale Chihuly, "100,000 Pounds of Ice and Neon," in the Tacoma Dome. Free. 2 to 10 p.m. today, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. tomorrow. Glass chandeliers, Ikebana stemas and macchias (through Oct. 3). Foster/White Gallery, 311 1/2 Occidental Ave. S.; 622-2833. 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday, noon to 5 p.m. Sunday.

Nearly 10 years ago, in 1984, Stephen Antonakos' neon art in the Tacoma Dome led to such an outcry that it shook Tacoma's public arts program to its foundation. Tacoma voters repealed that city's One-Percent-for-Art program.

How times have changed!

Yesterday, Dale Chihuly unveiled neon art on ice at the Dome, and it's a love-in. Businessmen are carrying in their lunches to see it. Docents from the Tacoma Art Museum are showing visitors through the free show 2-10 p.m. today, and 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. tomorrow. By the end of that time, only slivers of ice and neon tubing are apt to be left glinting from the ice rink.

From the bleachers, the neon and ice sculptures look like a giant board game: The Blocks vs. the Spiky Tumbleweeds. The blocks are winning. There are a couple hundred of them, but only eight of the spiky devils. Ah, but the spiky stand-ups, which emit a crackling hiss audible to anyone who approaches them, are pure neon; they will be as big tomorrow as today. The blocks, with U's of neon frozen inside them, drip steadily, reducing their 11-by-22-by-44-inch size to mere puddles eventually.

Put your money on the tumbleweeds.

It's not a game, of course, and no one is betting on anything, except that this dazzling display will capture national attention for itself and its makers, Chihuly and his long-time studio assistant, Charles Parriott, who was responsible for fabricating the ice and neon blocks.

"Charlie has been working on this for six weeks," Chihuly said. Two refrigerated freezer trucks stood by an entrance to the Dome, ready for additional ice-encased neon cargoes to be unloaded onto the rink.

Chihuly first conceived the idea as a series of drawings shaped of neon tubing, laid flat on the floor, then flooded over with water. "That experiment didn't work well," Chihuly said. "I never really got the right drawing conceptually. It didn't look good. It looked like Jell-O. It had no luminosity."

He and Parriott went back to their earlier neon and ice installations, an idea Chihuly did first in 1971, at the Rhode Island School of Design, in collaboration with James Carpenter. Parriott supervised its recreation for Chihuly's retrospective show at the Seattle Art Museum last year, and repeated it later in Cincinnati and Honolulu. The same neon tubes are reused for this show since, as Chihuly says, "Neon lasts forever."

A much bigger show

The Tacoma Dome show is different in quality as well as in kind. With "100,000 Pounds of Neon and Ice," it is five times bigger than prior shows. The knotted balls of neon that stand up to 7 feet high are new, as are several orbs of ice that hover like stranded fishing floats - ice versions of his blown-glass floats.

The shapes shimmer against the ice floor of the Dome; a pocket of red in one corner, ice orbs skating low nearby, melting slowly in the dim space, radiant in its slow demise. As it melts and runs down the sides of the upright blocks, water refreezes at the base, mounding into gentle, reflective slopes around the neon tubes.

"I didn't know what to expect myself," Chihuly said disarmingly, clearly pleased with the outcome.

"This is the ideal surface for this project," he said, his face caught in the neon glow. "This is the most stable space we've done this in, because here, for the first time, we're not battling the sun, or fighting ambient light. We get reflections from the tubes we never got before. And instead of the ice disappearing as it melts, it's transforming."

As with all Chihuly's work, this one was a collaboration. Three neon shops - Neon Alley, Tube Art and Western Neon - contributed time and expertise to creating the neon shapes.

Downtown gallery exhibit

While one Chihuly crew continued to install pieces at the Tacoma Dome yesterday, another of his crews was busy installing an exhibition of Chihuly's glass. That show opens from 5:30 to 8 p.m. today at the Foster/White Gallery in Pioneer Square.

At the gallery, Chihuly shows three massive chandeliers; a series of new, spotted "Macchia" bowls; a small gallery of gourd-shaped Ikebana vessels with ruffled glass ribbons that issue from the neck; and calla-lily-shaped "Ikebana" blooms, on long, twining stems.

Profusion has become a Chihuly hallmark, and it is here in all its splendid glory. The rough and ready drizzled canvases on the wall are a series of Chihuly's oil sketches for glass sets he created last year for Seattle Opera's production of Debussy's "Pelleas and Melisande."

Taken all together, it is a formidable body of work. But Chihuly is always thinking two steps ahead of whatever he just finished, and this is no exception.

He's already planning to translate the knotted neon tumbleweed forms at the Tacoma Dome into shapes 10 to 15 feet high. He's pondering the idea of putting a similar installation into a park in Paris. He's particularly pleased with the ice balls, made from stuffing steel molds with chunks of ice.

"I'm sure we'll do ice floats again somewhere. They'd float nicely in water," he mused.