Is Quasimodo too pretty?

Chihuly 2

I am of two minds about Dale Chihuly, and I cannot imagine any thoughtful person being otherwise.

The stunning array of gorgeous glass is certainly the most interesting work in the medium done in a long time. The Chihuly name on a piece of glass is blue-chip all the way.

Yet, one cannot get past the sense that the name on the glass is less a signature than a brand name.

There are those who call the Seattle artist the “Liberace of glass.” He is a huge crowd pleaser — perhaps his work is too pretty. Chihuly 6

In addition, he’s everywhere, doing scores of museum and gallery shows each year. His studio produces so much work that critics consider it an industrial production line rather than an artist’s studio.

And, detractors point out, he hasn’t made much of anything himself since 1979. Since then, almost everything that has been sold with his name on it has been created by his hundreds of staffers. Worse, Chihuly is a tireless self-promoter. His genius is as much in marketing as it is in aesthetics.

Several Web sites are dedicated to dissing Chihuly, including one that avers it’s “OK to hate Dale Chihuly.”

It isn’t just that his studio produces so much in his name; it’s a veritable factory. It isn’t just that the glass sometimes is too pretty.

Take a look at it as it is displayed at any museum. The installations makes them look more like a showroom than a gallery. All that dramatic lighting and black background sets off one’s instinct to look for price tags and bar codes. Chihuly 11

So, looking at a Seaform, it might come from the show window at Tiffany, with all that glistening light and black background. I look for a salesman sizing me — and my bank account — up.

It isn’t that the work isn’t stunning in its effect, but that the effect is a little too slick.

Although Chihuly calls the show “Installations,” these are not installations as the art world usually means the term. These are rather settings for jewels, meant to show them off.chihuly installation

In most art-world installations, the individual pieces are subordinated to the meaning of the larger assembly. In Chihuly’s installations, the individual pieces are glorified by the presentation. They are set off heroically, like a protagonist in Italian opera hogging the spotlight.

But for all that, the problem with dismissing Chihuly because of his marketing and production strategies is that the argument ignores the art itself, which is hard to dismiss.

Even if you’re skeptical, the work itself is dazzling, really dazzling. Chihuly 10

Eminent art writer Barbara Rose puts it directly: “Chihuly has literally changed the definition of glass.”

Chihuly was born in 1941 in Tacoma, Wash., and began working with glass 20 years later. After school at the University of Washington, he did graduate work at the Rhode Island School of Design and won a Fulbright Fellowship to study glass in Venice.

In 1976, he lost his left eye in an automobile accident in England — his eye patch is his trademark — and the following year, he became head of the sculpture department at the Rhode Island school. Chihuly portrait

With his shock of wild hair and his eye patch over a face that looks like a caricature, he could be the Quasimodo of art glass.

All along, he continued to win awards and place work in major museums. Today, there is hardly a museum, major or minor, that doesn’t own Chihuly’s work.

In 1983, Chihuly moved to Seattle, where his studio grew to the point that it is a major industry, nearly as well known as Boeing or Microsoft.

On the way, he raised glass from a craft to a fine art. Chihuly certainly has pretensions of fine art. This glass is not meant to be seen as merely craft.

The difference between fine art and craft is metaphor. Fine art functions because of its metaphor; craft survives happily without it. Chihuly has consciously developed the metaphorical side of the glass.

There are organic shapes, there are womblike baskets with “baby” baskets inside, there are anemones and jellyfish, all in bright colors with brilliant accents. Chihuly 8

At their best, the metaphor resonates, as with the odd squid tentacles and octopus arms of his chandeliers, or the beautiful crimson grass stalks of Red Reeds.chihuly painting

The least effective works are his paintings, which strike one as nothing more than abstract LeRoy Neimans in glitter paint.

Like I said, I’m of two minds about Chihuly, and I cannot imagine any thoughtful person being otherwise.

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