EXHIBIT REVIEW And then there was glass

Chihuly’s latest exhibition celebrates light, dark, and color in installation art

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Chihuly’s Neodymium Reeds is now on display at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts.
Photo by teresa nouri rishel © 2011 Chihuly Studio, All rights reserved

Through the Looking Glass

Museum of Fine Arts, Gund Gallery

April 10 – Aug. 7, 2011

Dale Chihuly has been working with glass for over 40 years, and his newest collection of glass sculptures is now on display at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. Chihuly: Through the Looking Glass is not your typical art exhibition, it’s a celebration of installation art and fragility at its very finest. Of course, before we give Chihuly all the credit, you should know that he does not work alone. A dislocated shoulder from a 1979 bodysurfing accident left him unable to hold a glassblowing pipe; since then, he has relied on a team of glassblowers to carry out his artistic plans. Chihuly classifies his role as “more choreographer than dancer, more supervisor than participant, more director than actor.” The result of these artistic collaborations is an oeuvre focused just as much on presentation as craftsmanship.

Chihuly: Through the Looking Glass is a surreal journey — part exploration down the chocolate river to Candy Land, part moving walkway past the Crown Jewels, part diving at the Great Barrier Reef. Persian Wall greets exhibition viewers at the bottom of the stairs that lead to the Gund Gallery, with multiple waved discs of colored glass climbing up the wall from the floor like smooth barnacles. Strategically placed lights reflect colors of warm reds, oranges, and yellows onto the wall, reinforcing the impression that we are about to enter another world.

Inside the actual gallery Scarlet Icicle Chandelier assumes the role of a formidable giant sea urchin as it casts spiky shadows on the walls; around the corner, Ikebana Boat launches the entire journey. Ikebana is the Japanese art of flower arranging, and a rough wooden boat overflowing with bright swirls and twists of glass floats on a black, mirrored piece of Plexiglas. Chihuly attributes his inspiration for this work to a 1995 visit to Finland: “I got the idea of throwing some of the glass in the river, and I wanted to see how easily the glass would break or if it did break.” Most of the glass didn’t break, and the vision of glass-filled boats coming up the river manned by Finnish teenagers translated into this piece.

This overwhelming beginning of the exhibition leads to expectations of complete immersion in a strange world that plays on not only the relationship between glass and color, but also light and dark; merely peeking into the delicate world of elegant shapes is not an option. Toward the middle of the exhibition is Mille Fiori (A Thousand Flowers), a darkened room filled with a glowing, 60-foot-long expanse of colored glass. It’s a veritable library of Chihuly and his studio’s glassblowing techniques: Pink and orange fingers stretch upwards like anemones. Green and black figures wriggle like sea snakes anchored in the sand. A twisted mass of flaming reds and yellows struggles to reach the top. The room that houses Persian Ceiling, with its gentle blocks of color and dappled, light-filled entirety, is almost a welcome release from Mille Fiori’s air of unsettled magic. Above, a glass ceiling supports colored pieces of glass piled on top of each other — undulating circular forms, an octopus, miniature humanoids.

Of course, the entire exhibition does not consist purely of loud burst of color and melodramatic lighting: In the Northwest Room, Chihuly juxtaposes the rough fibers of genuine Native American-woven baskets with the delicately translucent, almost shell-like Tabac Baskets. But compared to the rest of the exhibition, these subtler pieces are perhaps at a disadvantage — they are too quiet. Is it possible, then, to find the line between pure sensitivity and captivating installation?

In Neodymium Reeds on Logs, Chihuly has created a perfect end to the exhibition. Pure luminosity comes in the form of smooth, lavender-colored glass rods that almost reach the ceiling. The peeling birch rods in which they are inserted birthday-cake style, are an unlikely but pleasing complement. This is the combination of nature and fantasy that we have been seeking all along. The journey has ended, but remnants of the glass dream world still remain.