|Chihuly's Ikebana Boat: shouldn't some Oompa-Loompas be rowing this thing?|
He dared not to like a great big fat crowd-pleaser.
Smee's target was Chihuly: Through the Looking Glass, the MFA's current blockbuster devoted to the output - I won't call it an oeuvre - of Dale Chihuly, certainly the most successful glass artist in the country. Actually, Chihuly is more like his own industry; teams of glassblowers and engineers produce his work for him and install it all over the globe (sadly, the artist lost the vision in one eye in a car accident years ago, forever complicating his ability to personally produce his work).
Chihuly's installations can be enormous, and are best known for making a forceful case for glass in the public square, where stone and steel used to rule the roost. And they're always popular (I think this is the third major exhibition of his stuff in New England in the past few years), partly because they're remarkably consistent - indeed so predictable that Chihuly now probably counts as a brand.
Still, Chihuly takes himself seriously enough; he gives his stuff the kind of classy monikers that the management at the Bellagio (where he runs a gallery) might give to their latest high-end eatery (Chiostro di Sant'Apollonia and Mille Fiori are samples). And he's prone to classifying his works into formal groups, like "Reeds" and "Boats" and "Chandeliers." But basically everything he does, from his candyland landscapes to his giant umbrella drinks (at top), is a happy, splashy blast of vulgarity, and that's that.
And this was Sebastian Smee's mistake - pointing, oh-so-delicately but undeniably, to the Bellagio-level taste of the whole show. Eek! Globe readers don't like that kind of thing; after all, isn't it the Herald that's supposed to be down-market? And doesn't Smee remember what happened to Louise Kennedy when she described the self-consciously vulgar Huntington show Pirates! as, in fact, self-consciously vulgar?
I guess not.
Still, something tells me Smee will survive the outraged letters I've been reading in the Globe regarding his review. And Chihuly of course can survive any review, anywhere; he'd only be bothered by criticism if he were, in fact, attempting something like art, which he's not. Come to think of it, there really isn't a single aesthetic idea in evidence in his entire show. (Even when this artist calms down for something more "elegant," as in his "Reeds" series, he hangs onto his signature sense of inner vacuum.)
That emptiness is a bit interesting in and of itself - it's quite unusual, really. Master craftsmen generally edge toward art as their skill deepens; their formal concerns begin to coalesce into metaphors in and of themselves; they discover what their work means. But this hasn't happened with Chihuly - indeed, his one stab at connecting with an actual aesthetic (in an odd display of forms based on Native-American motifs) comes off as a weird little detour from the main event.
Still, I admit that you can't dismiss Chihuly completely, because in the right context, he can truly charm - or better yet, make you laugh; indeed, his gonzo, take-no-prisoners visual giddiness not only throws a goofy kick into all kinds of formal spaces, but seems to draw a kind of virtual content from them. I know it sounds funny, but while his sculptures utterly fail as statements, they operate quite well as ripostes. In fact they're probably best described as visual raspberries.
If you doubt me, just go up the stairs from the current show and take in his delightful Lime Green Icicle Tower, (at left) which is standing like a luminous spire in the MFA's severe new Shapiro Courtyard. It's everything the courtyard isn't: a whimsically organic folly (it looks like some mutant anemone in an outsized aquarium), shooting like a firework all the way to the top of a space that in its expensive serenity could pass for a mausoleum. Indeed, the impossible height of the piece almost operates as a kind of joke; it activates the whole space as a punch line, sweetly skewering the pretentiousness of its own presentation. You can almost hear it whispering: Oh, come off it, everybody.