Friday, June 24, 2011

So - how bad is the Dale Chihuly show?

Shouldn't some Oompa-Loompas be rowing this thing?
Recently something very strange occurred in the pages of the Boston Globe. Its star art critic, Sebastian Smee, whose glittering paeans to things everybody can agree on had just won him a Pulitzer Prize, did something he'd never done before.

He dared not to like a 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 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 craft his pieces).

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 counts as a brand.

All this popularity and "innovation" does offer the MFA half an excuse for taking Chihuly seriously, I suppose; the problem is that the style which has won him acclaim has varied in only one dimension over the years - it's gotten bigger and brighter. That's the extent of its "development." Small, early "Chihulies" are like bubbles of color bursting before your eyes; later ones are more like megaton technicolor explosions that just won't quit (at left). And that's about it in terms of any shift in aesthetics, which makes the idea of a "retrospective" slightly absurd.

Still, Chihuly takes himself seriously enough; he gives his stuff the kind of classy monikers that the Bellagio (where he runs a gallery) might give to a 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 candy-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 target down-market taste?  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. 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.

No, Chihuly isn't an "artist;" he's more like the head of a management team engineering a designer drug targeting your visual pleasure center. He only wants to give you a rush; the whole show is like a giant tab of lysergic acid. Of course, LSD can be fun in small doses (don't ask me how I know that), and the pleasure center does deliver, well, pleasure - just ask the kids romping through the show, asking if you can lick the sculptures (really, the docents for this exhibit oughta be Oompa-Loompas). You might get a lingering case of retina-burn at Through the Looking Glass, but that's the extent of its impact - or danger.

Still, I admit you can't dismiss Chihuly completely, because in the right context, he can truly charm - or better yet, make you laugh; indeed, his visual giddiness throws a kick into all sorts of formal spaces. 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, go up the stairs from the current show and take in his delightful Lime Green Icicle Tower, (at left) which stands 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 a mutant anemone), shooting like a firework all the way to the top of a space that in its expensive serenity could pass for a crypt. Indeed, the impossible height of the piece almost operates as a joke; it activates the whole space like an exclamation point, sweetly punctuating - and puncturing - the pretentiousness of its presentation. You can almost hear it whispering: Oh, lighten up!

Likewise, if you're inclined to think that Ikebana Boat (at top) is an atrocity, just look what happens when you float it past the rigid restraint of Chatsworth (at right): suddenly you've got a party.  When I browsed through images of Chihuly's public installations on the web, I saw something like the same effect over and over - just about everything his team comes up with plays as jazzy fun in a public context.  It's only when you isolate it against a hushed, black backdrop, that the work suddenly seems pushy and empty.  So Chihuly doesn't produce art, he produces carnival floats - but are carnival floats such a bad thing?  He may not belong in a museum.  But that doesn't mean I feel like raining on his parade.


  1. I had similar feelings when I went to see the show with some friend. The shapes and colors are pleasurable on a purely sensual level, and I'd love to see some of the chandeliers and vases on the set of a Terry GIlliam film, but once my friends and I arrived at the gallery which had all the small pieces in the ceiling, we did have a discussion about content and whether art was still art when it lacked content-- because ultimately, we seemed unanimous that Chihuly was fun, and pleasurable, but if there's a message, it's "Look! I do cool stuff with glass!"

  2. But you wonder if there's really that much more to, say, Donald Judd or Richard Serra - indeed, maybe there's less; they're certainly a lot less fun! And what are the "ideas," exactly, that are absent from Dale Chihuly, but animating late Ellsworth Kelly or Sol LeWitt? As I pondered the obvious success of "Lime Green Icicle Tower," I began to wonder why we should admire so much intentionally-empty minimalism yet sniff at the naively vacuous maximalism of Dale Chihuly. In a way I'm merely playing devil's advocate, but I think those questions are rather harder to answer (without recourse to historical trends, which you'd think any real minimalist would scorn) than they at first appear. Certainly Chihuly's glorious color, and the wild energy of his forms, are a striking addition to what's possible in public art. In our more broodingly serious modern monuments we're certainly not getting any of that, and maybe we're not even getting much of the spiritual interiority we immediately intuit Chihuly lacks.

  3. i saw the exhibit at the museum and it left me wanting. seeing the boat piece in nature (above) allows me to appreciate the artist much more, probably because of the way i described the exhibit: "it's alive".

  4. I completly disagre. His work is amazing, and whever or not you see all the sides depends on you. There is always a twist or trick up Dale's sleeve, and nearly all of his artworks arent what they look like. They nearly all have 2 sides or even more. The look, the colours and the form of his artwork is just truly stunning. Ive never seen such simple artwork look so elegant or grand. Its magnificent. I do not see what thy sees, for you look upon the world with difrent sides.


  5. Okay, you disagree. But it's not enough to say "his work is amazing." You have to come up with some sort of statement of meaning on this blog. "Tricks up his sleeve, they all have two sides - or even more!" Sorry, not good enough.