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Italo Scanga: The Permanent Immigrant Shakes to Wake a Small, Sleepy Town – La Conner, WA

An example, Italo Scanga’s “Polychrome Heads” series, oil paint on wood. Dale and Leslie Chihuly Collection.

Permanent Immigrant: Italo Scanga in the Dale and Leslie Chihuly Collection

Museum of Northwest Art

February 18 through May 14, 2023

By JOHN DRURY, April 2023

There exists in the reserved, taciturn town of La Conner, Washington (population 968 in 2021), a regional museum currently hosting a world-class exhibition; “Permanent Immigrant: Italo Scanga in the Dale and Leslie Chihuly Collection.” Settled in 1867, the quiet little municipality is situated at the edge of the Skagit Valley and is the largest tulip-growing region in the world. When the flowers are in season, the rainbow hued fields draw tourists from all over. When the blooms are out of season, and once the Trumpeter Swans and Canadian geese have left - these their wintering grounds - the Spring’s entertainment pickings are slim, outside of the Pacific Northwest Quilt and Fiber Arts Museum (the institute that the locals simply refer to, as the quilt museum). 

In steps MONA. 

An example of Italo Scanga’s “Polychrome Heads” series, oil paint on wood; Dale and Leslie Chihuly Collection.

The Museum of Northwest Art collects, preserves and exhibits art created in the Pacific Northwest, and graces South First Street, the places waterfront, main drag. And arguably the immediate region’s best known visual artist, world renown glassmaker Dale Chihuly, celebrates his 50-year friendship with the artist Italo Scanga (1932-2001), a California resident at the end of his life, with an exhibition of works that he’d collected over the duration of their friendship, there. Chihuly is of course a founder of the world-renown Pilchuck Glass School, outside of neighboring Stanwood, and mecca to those denizens of the studio glass movement. Italo Scanga would spend a portion of 25 summers at the prestigious school - serving as a visiting artist. 

Italo Scanga, “Fear of Drinking (Male)”, 1980. Oil paint on wood, wire and glass bottle; Dale and Leslie Chihuly Collection. All photographs by John Drury.

Examples of the best of Italo Scanga’s voluminous and eclectic work are present here, in La Conner. There is his “Fear of Drinking (Male)” from 1980, perhaps the best known of Scanga’s “Fear” series, a fire engine red figure (our fair warning) cut of the thick forested land on which the Pilchuck Glass School sits, which was once only a small portion of a tree farm. A child’s wooden top serves as the entities head, a metaphorically genius implication of the dizzied spin so often accompanying drunken reverie. It was largely his “Fear” series that brought Scanga to the attention of the international art world, by way of New York City. Present also, is an example from his “Potato Famine” series - “Potato Famine (with Madonna)”, from 1979 (another like work, from this series, was exhibited in the controversial Museum of Modern Art exhibition, “Primitivism in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern”, in 1984). At MoMA, Scanga’s work was accompanied by that of Pablo Picasso, Paul Gauguin, and Constantin Brancusi. If you are going to drop names, drop big ones.

Italo Scanga, “Potato Famine (with Madonna), 1979. Wood, potatoes, cloth and acrylic paint on plaster, 41-inches high. Dale and Leslie Chihuly Collection.

So don’t find yourself in Seattle without making the hour-and-change drive, to La Conner. Oh…and upstairs (in this quaint facility, one of the tallest in town at two stories!) is a paired exhibition, “Geppetto’s Children: Italo Scanga at Pilchuck Glass School”, a survey exhibition exploring the makers at Pilchuck that assisted, befriended, and created at the school alongside Scanga. Here you can view works by Deborah Butterfield, Donald Lipski, Jerry Pethick, Judy Pfaff, Buster Simpson and others. Included also, are works by “names” better known to “glassies”, the Italians - maestros Lino Tagliapietra and Pino Signoretto for instance, the Czech master Stanislav Libensky and Americans Robbie Miller, Benjamin Moore, William Morris, Charlie Parriott, Mary Shaffer and Therman Statom. Each of the exhibitions are curated by Matthew Kangas. La Conner then, is especially fertile this season - and you never know where you might strike gold. I suspect that there will be a bumper crop of flowers this year. WM

John Drury

John Drury is a multi-media artist, published author, independent curator and instructor. Drury holds a Bachelor of Fine Art degree from the Columbus College of Art and Design (1983) and a Master of Fine Art Degree in sculpture (1985; including a minor in painting), from Ohio State University. John is the father of two teenagers, living in New York City since 1989 and has received the prestigious Louis Comfort Tiffany Award for his work in sculpture.

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