Photo Essays

Dale Chihuly Mounts World’s Biggest Bong Retrospective

Dale Chihuly, “Ikebana Boat” (2011)

The Boston Museum of Fine Arts is going totally psychedelic, man. It’s like, all these colors swirling everywhere, all these curly pieces of glass like crazy mutant sea creatures. You feel me? Crowd-pleasing sculptor and glass artist Dale Chihuly has a big show up at the MFA, and it’s like, totally sweet.

As a boon for the box office, Chihuly is a pretty infallible choice for a mainstream museum to raise some cash. That doesn’t make for the most intersting show, though. Never wholly accepted by the contemporary art world, Chihuly is largely seen as an entertainer and a decorator rather than an artist worthy of critical and conceptual regard. The MFA’s Chihuly: Through the Looking Glass won’t do him any favors, either. The exhibition is about as critically limp as a museum can get, failing to provide any context or history to the artist’s work and instead content to simply show the work as is, an amusement-park glass menagerie that too often looks like a 5 year old’s acid trip.

In fact, the majority of the crowd packing the space when I visited seemed to be under 8 years old. They also all had cameras, either snapping picture after picture of the beguiling sculptures or badgering their moms to hand over their iPhones, the better to document with. Viewing the show, small at only 4 separate gallery spaces, was basically a matter of following a single file line snaking around the works, which were all, for some reason, set on highly reflective black stone pedestals reminiscent of a gleaming narchitecture bathroom.

Native American-influenced gallery in the exhibition

An initial selection of surreal vases and attendant drawings gives way to a gallery of Chihuly’s work inspired by Native American textiles and ceramics. This is the most interesting and thought-out curation of the entire exhibition; set among actual examples of Native American craft, it’s possible to see Chihuly’s re-molding of traditional aesthetics into new forms. Unfortunately that context is lost in the next few galleries, which simply exist to show off glass extravaganzas.

A wooden boat gets filled with a menagerie of glass creatures. A rectangular composition of random glass shapes gets thrown on a pedestal and put in the center of a gallery, anchored by an orange and red twisting mass. Curly glass chandeliers look like the world’s biggest, most complicated bongs. A ceiling set with little glass shells and sea creatures lit up in ghastly coral colors inspires the same reaction from overawed spectators: whooooa. Pass the bowl.

Don’t just take my word about this stonerfest, though. Check out more photos below.

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Need something new for your ceiling? Dale Chihuly, “Scarlet Icicle Chandelier” (2011).

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Chihuly’s glass bowls set against Native American baskets.

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The mother lode: Dale Chihuly “Mille Fiore” (2011). This is a haphazard composition of glass objects that varies with each installation. Check out the monster at the back.

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Detail of “Mille Fiore”.

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Chihuly’s “Persian Ceiling”. The wall text claims that this ceiling installation is one of the artist’s “most effective forms of installation art.” Effective at what? Filling space? Entertaining people? Being “art”?

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In the “Chandeliers” room were three enormous chandeliers that took their visual vocabulary from ocean life. They would have been perfect in a high-end seafood restaurant. Here? Just a spacey collection of well made but barely interesting sculptures.

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Detail of one of the chandeliers.

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This piece, called “Neodymium Rods on Logs” (2011), was among the more subtle and interesting of the show, the materials contrasting nicely. I would have liked to see it in a well-lit gallery space rather than this theatrical staging, though.

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In the exhibition’s special gift shop, visitors can purchase all sorts of arty glass knickknacks and prints of Chihuly drawings.

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A giant Chihuly tower invaded the MFA’s new atrium preceding its Art of the Americas wing. This one was pretty incredible.

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Installed in the MFA’s new small courtyards was Chihuly’s “Amber Cattails”, an interesting contrast in the garden.

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Chihuly: Through the Looking Glass runs at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts through August 7.

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