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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.

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.

Kyle Chayka

Kyle Chayka was senior editor at Hyperallergic. He is a cultural critic based in Brooklyn and has contributed to publications including ARTINFO, ARTnews, Modern Painters, LA Weekly,...

26 replies on “Dale Chihuly Mounts World’s Biggest Bong Retrospective”

  1. I just saw it… agree with Chihuly’s wow factor, but awesome to see nonetheless… entertaining, though the bong interpretation escaped me till now ))

    1. What gets me about the show is that it wasn’t even that nice to look at… it was just overwhelming. The crowds may have added to that feeling though. 

  2. Kinda sounds like the “critic” in this piece takes his title a little too seriously. As someone who has curates exhibits and works in the art world I find the writer’s negative and generally condescending view towards the work and specifically it’s appeal to children sad, and possibly hinting at the writer’s own complete misunderstanding of Chihuly’s work in general.  Anything that intrigues and inspires young people to appreciate and grow to love the arts should be applauded, not condemned.  We live in fairly dark and serious times, and I may just have fundamental differences of opinion with the writer here but, I feel that anything that allows adults to experience a level of whimsy and playfulness (eh-em, persian ceiling installation reference) that possibly helps connect them to what it feels like to be a child again is a good thing. Isn’t connecting with and evoking some level of emotion or awe in the viewer part of what art is? For primarily formal work such as Chihuly’s, this kind of connection is integral to any type of conceptual message or understanding. Understanding that seems to be completely lost on this reviewer, made obvious by his opening description of the exhibit as a bong retrospective. Are you guys really trying to be taken seriously or just be hype averse?

      1. I don’t believe I said anything about liking his work for it’s formalism, so much as acknowledging the formal nature of the work and how that formalness can limit any conceptual meaning the work has unless the installation is done is such a way that pushes what an artist may or may not be trying to say.  By the way, I do know what the words kitschy and tacky mean, I have no need to look them up. You on the other hand may want to look up a 100 level art class.

          1. If you would like to respond with some type of meaningful commentary or actual discussion that shows your level education in the arts or the art world I would love to carry on a conversation with you, but I learned to see through all the condescending egos in art school a long time ago myself, and don’t waste my time with negative comment trolls.

          2. Hi Jess, I think we might disagree on the value of Chihuly’s work. I have no problem with museums mounting different type of shows but I don’t think we have to check our critical thinking at the door. I love bad tv like you wouldn’t believe (maybe too much? “The test results say, ‘you’re NOT the father’.”) but I don’t think its better (or even the same) as good tv.

            I think it’s interesting that the show seems to attract kids but as a reviewer, Kyle seems to think that was distracting from an experience with the art work. And I actually like the fact that they look like bongs, it makes them fun to look at. Perhaps we both have different associations with bong, but I think of them as fun and often over the top.

            Kyle’s issue was also with the wall text, which didn’t seem to illuminate much of Chihuly as an artist. Hope these answer your points. Look forward to your response.

    1. What bothers me most about this exhibition isn’t Chihuly’s work, it’s the curating: there’s no context, no argument for Chihuly as any kind of great artist. The “critical” wall text is mostly based on quotes by Chihuly, which would never happen to an artist anyone takes seriously.

      That given, I think Chihuly’s work has no conceptual message worth noting. If it’s “art is pretty!!!”, fine. But how is that interesting?

      1. I can see your point on the curation. I work in the Northwest and am generally put off by the whole “bong art” stereotype that glass art gets, however if it isn’t curated well it definitely can make a good exhibit look bad. (i.e. your lighting reference and comment that it just seemed thrown up there.) I don’t prescribe to the “if it’s pretty, it’s art” concept. I am partial to the Persian ceiling installations simply because of there use of color and light. For primarily formal work that doesn’t really have a message per-say, I find it to be an effective way of displaying the work and creating a controlled environment for the viewer to experience the artist’s vision. If you have blown glass yourself or watched glass be blown, the colors and glowing quality in the furnace during the actual blowing process is very much a kin to the Persian ceiling installations. However, I can also see how very large and especially loud crowds can detract from the experience. 

        1. Another problem is that the show never once referenced the actual process of glass blowing, in a video or photo or whatever. It’s like the work just landed there from an alien planet. So we outsiders have no way to appreciate those connections.

      2. I thought that the wall text was damning enough.
        Quote the bastard. All the critique I personally need is right there in his bio and his quotes.

        No matter what people think about the ethics of the Guitar/Car/Koch Brothers/Chihuly MFA, good luck finding a curator to write a text arguing that he was a great artist. Everyone knows that this show is self-funded fluff. Let this iniquitous show die a suitable death. Now some idiot at the Globe is going to have to write an article (with no sources) about the online controversy about this show.

    2. You can just call him Kyle!

      My beef: this work doesn’t help me connect to being a child again. Carsten Holler’s slide at the Tate did, the fingerboards and spot-the-differences in Cao Fei’s current show at Lombard-Freid did, playing with the time-delayed videos at Dan Graham’s Whitney retrospective did, but this? What part of my childhood involved looking at brightly-colored glass objects I couldn’t touch? If that’s an objective here, it didn’t work. I don’t think it *could* work, anymore, in glass or even painting, because we’ve come up with better methods for making something appeal to the inner child. As for appealing to the outer child, I’m sure going to this show would be fun and make museums less intimidating for a child. I’m not so sure the benefits of that outweigh whatever would be in the space otherwise.

      Also these guys are definitely not hype-averse. They love hype!

    3. You can just call him Kyle!

      My beef: this work doesn’t help me connect to being a child again. Carsten Holler’s slide at the Tate did, the fingerboards and spot-the-differences in Cao Fei’s current show at Lombard-Freid did, playing with the time-delayed videos at Dan Graham’s Whitney retrospective did, but this? What part of my childhood involved looking at brightly-colored glass objects I couldn’t touch? If that’s an objective here, it didn’t work. I don’t think it *could* work, anymore, in glass or even painting, because we’ve come up with better methods for making something appeal to the inner child. As for appealing to the outer child, I’m sure going to this show would be fun and make museums less intimidating for a child. I’m not so sure the benefits of that outweigh whatever would be in the space otherwise.

      Also these guys are definitely not hype averse. They love hype!

  3. As far as Chihuly goes, less is more.  A single tentacle or polyp piece in a garden setting that changes its appearance and reflective properties as the sun moves through the sky, or even better, dripping in a thunderstorm, is enough for me.  Or a small vitrine of bowls, smartly lit, or a room of rods on logs.  A big sugary show like this does not seem appealing on any level.  Well, maybe if they were really bongs, that would be poetic.  The Chihuly at the Bellagio in Las Vegas, Fiori di Como, required over 100 people to fabricate and install, with 10,000 pounds of steel and 40,000 pounds of blown glass.  I wonder about the corresponding stats for this show- it seems over-the-top and garish (but then, the only way I will probably ever see it is on this blog and through Kyle’s eyes).  I will be in Boston in August but by then the show will have closed- so thanks, Hyperallergic!

  4. I don’t find Chihuly’s work uninteresting for it’s lack of concept/context. If it’s merely decorative art, it’s very well done decorative art. I can’t see basing my ideas about something’s merit on whether or not it appeals to children.

  5.   I wish other glass artists past and present could get their work shown and become as famous as Chihuly.  I am one of those who views glass work and the decorative arts as “real” art .

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