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April 17, 2011

Me and Alice: In Chihuly Land

CH mille.jpgThe glassworks of Dale Chihuly, on exhibition at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts through August, stir competing passions between elites and aficionados like almost no other work by a living artist. He's high art for the masses. He's low art for the mavens. His "joyfulness" and "commercial success" are problems for some people, Malcolm Rogers, director of the MFA, said recently in the Boston Herald. The work is "tasteless" and the show is "enervating," ragged Sebastian Smee in the Boston Globe. The battle rages on in the comments that follow Smee's story, but at least one commentator -- "letsplaytwo" -- fell squarely into the pro-Chihuly camp: "I saw the exhibit yesterday and absolutely loved it. Now I'm no art snob, but I do know I respond deeply to color and light. The use of both in this show was breathtaking."

Another approach to Chihuly's work might be embedded in the title of the MFA show: "Chihuly: Through the Looking Glass." The pop-culture reference is obvious, but as I descended into the bunker-like Gund Gallery in the basement of the MFA Art of Americas Wing, I felt the Alice label was only the beginning of a journey. Maybe Chihuly for all his twirls and twists and whimsy and wackiness is really an artist of the remix.

CH organe yellow.jpgHere are all the associations I made while walking through the exhibition (backward first, and  then forward aided by wall narratives): the poster for Star Trek: The Motion Picture, the Emerald City in The Wizard of Oz, a Mozart overture, I Dream of Jeannie, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (with Gene Wilder), Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (with Johnny Depp), every touristy store in Venice, a chemical stew of nuclear waste, Disney World's It's a Small World and mutations in nature after a post-apocalyptic disaster. (Sorry, I have no image for that.) 

Yes, I feel the love in Chihuly's work, too. But I also felt as if I had stumbled upon a mad scientist's secret (and very moodily organized) laboratory that investigates the impact of over-loving Italy, primary colors and drugs.

CH green.jpgBarbara Rose, who wrote about Chihuly in 2000, called the artist a "mischievous, cunning, inspired shaman--a magician, a contemporary Merlin, a Ken Kesey Merry Prankster who produces the psychedelic experience of a magical, glowing, and sparkling, brilliantly alive panorama without drugs. This enchanted glass world has as much to do with Alice in Wonderland and the Wizard of Oz as it does with the great Renaissance and Baroque festivals that sovereigns arranged to entertain their courts and subjects."

So I guess I'm not alone. But I'm also not put off, pissed off or particularly captivated by Chihuly. To me, his work is puzzling in the most engaging sense of the word. Best of all, seeing his creations made me curious to know more about his influences outside of RISD and Venice. Through the Looking Glass got me thinking about the history of glass art in this country -- and that got me climbing up the vaulting Americas Wing staircase. And wouldn't you know, three floors higher: works by two of the most famous glass pros -- Louis Comfort Tiffany and John La Farge.

In the end, the experience reminded me of what I like best about art: It sends you on a quest. Like Alice down the rabbit hole.

   

Photos: Alicia Anstead

April 17, 2011 11:56 AM | | Comments (0)

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