Familiar with the glass creations of Dale Chihuly? No you say? You may know them without really knowing. They’re glistening all over and have herds of followers.
The Seattle-based glass artist’s surreal large-scale forms, light fixtures, orbs, flowers, pointy icicle towers — have wowed people all over the world. They’re akin to giant pieces of shiny candy, hanging over canals in Italy, floating in botanical gardens, erupting in museums and galleries; from the elegant Victoria & Albert to garish resorts like Bellagio in Vegas.
Chihuly experiments with color, texture and shape “To give his sculptures an organic feel” (the catalogues say). Currently there’s an exhibition at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, a 40-year retrospective called “Through the Looking Glass.” Worth the trip (from New Haven or surrounding).
In 95% of reviews for Chihuly one reads the same over and over: He revolutionized the art of hand blown glass (and has a team of assistants), developed new shapes, blends vibrant colors, challenges the laws of physics. It’s called “visually enchanting, “eye seducing,” “mind blowing,” and of course, “dazzling.” No one can deny they’re spectacular. Like monster chandeliers or fireworks. His work is almost always received with enraptured, orgasmic appreciation.
Yet these words or aphorisms may reveal something else: Emptiness.
Chihuly was first bought to my attention at London’s Royal Botanical Garden in ’05, where one of his boats suddenly appeared as if a mirage on water. His pieces were placed throughout the gardens, planted among flowers, trees and vines or floating peacefully. The museum’s program read, “The installations certainly stand out from their surroundings but feel natural, as if they belong and have always been there.” While eye-catching, I did not see it that way. It felt highly manipulated and showy. I wanted to look closer but couldn’t quite put a finger on what I felt. Or rather, did not. On the one hand I like beautiful, shimmering things as much as the next woman. On the other, his art left me feeling empty. In much the same way one feels after eating a bag of candy.
Kenneth Baker articulated it best a few years later in his wonderfully original (if ruthless) review of the Chihuly show at the de Young Museum in San Francisco where he wrote,
“Educated viewers cannot look long at Chihuly’s work without wishing there was something to think about. So they think about something else. The capacity to hold our attention in the moment, or in reflection later, is a mark of significant art in an era when mass media works hard to abbreviate attention spans and decapitate questions.”
It was scathing, smart and funny. An honest opinion in a widely read paper (not simply a blog), which is rare. But just an opinion. You can read the full review here
Naturally Chihuly’s legion of fans and defenders or “Admirers of empty virtuosity” (Baker was a brave man for writing such a thing, regardless if one agrees) responded with mass hate mail and near public outcry. The most the San Francisco Chronicle had ever received. Given the response Baker wrote this cogitation with no apologies, “The critic owes his readers not reassurance, but a point of view, and an example of how a point of view forms.”
Most historians concur. Aside from liking books with big glossy pictures, I studied Art History in College and Graduate School because it embodied all the Liberal Arts: philosophy, literature, sociology, political science–even pure science (Durer’s precise mathematical drawings, Eakin’s famous “Gross Clinic”). What Chihuly’s work embodies or stands for historically, I do not know, exactly. But that might be said of much modern art.
Some interpret the cheery insularity of his work as a strong point. But, as Baker wrote, “Its disconnection from the main lines of thought around the visual art of the past century places it on the same footing as the luxury items in department stores’ home-furnishings sections.”
Perhaps. For me looking at Chihuly’s work is a momentary appreciation. More than anything I’m curious about his methods and how he does it. Glass blowing is a long-established craft, after all, pride of the Venetians (which might in fact contradict what Baker says). A technique invented in the first century BC that coincided with the establishment of the Roman empire. And not easy.
But yes it’s theatrical and shiny like supersized baubles of faux jewelery. One can’t really resist a closer look. Does it belong in the Met or other Major cultural institution? Not so sure. Though naturally attracts crowds when it is. Children certainly enjoy.
And “Art for art’s sake” does have its place –as Walter Pater and Edgar Allen Poe wrote, “The intrinsic value of “true” art is divorced from any didactic, moral or utilitarian function… Such works are complete in themselves.” (naturally many have vehemently countered this argument). More apropos here might simply be what Baudelaire wrote, “Beauty is its own reason for being.”
My gut reaction to his work is –pretty! Even amazing. But I’m not captured by its statement or significance. Perhaps there is none, beyond the superficial. The difference between the special effects of a blockbuster movie and authenticity of the Sistine Ceiling. Or even the “get well” card a child creates, which holds a great deal of thought and feeling however simply done.
In other words, what the late Sidney Lumet wrote of film is an echo of what many have said of Art,
“While the goal of all movies is to entertain the kind of film I believe in goes one step further…compels the spectator to examine one facet or another of his own conscience or a historical moment, stimulates thought and sets the mental juices flowing.”
And I’ve always found this true of great art. Though just managed to write a longish post about Chihuly so perhaps that says something, too; )
What do you think?