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Dale Chihuly in a New Light

"Ikebana Boat" by Dale Chihuly

By Steve Jermanok

Walk into any major art museum, renowned botanical garden, even glam hotels like the Bellagio in Las Vegas, and it seems like you’ll find a piece of art by that master of contemporary glass, Dale Chihuly. Bombarded by so much of his work, the result can either be as exciting as viewing one of his signature chandeliers hanging in the voluminous foyer of the Milwaukee Art Museum or an underwhelming merge of glass and fauna at the Fairchild Tropical Botanical Garden in Coral Gables, Florida, where the exotic flowers are more impressive than the multi-hued glass.

It’s understandable to see why garden designers would go gaga over Chihuly’s objects. The tall cattails and reeds or the graceful allure of a heron-like sculpture seem to blend perfectly with the natural world. Strangely, however, the bright light provided by Mother Nature seems to subdue Chihuly’s celebration of color. To truly appreciate the sensual appeal of Chihuly’s grand glass structures, one needs to head indoors to view a dazzling display of 12 installations now on view at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. Most of the glass creations in Chihuly: Through the Looking Glass, on view until August 7, 2011, were created specifically for the site.


"Lime Green Icicle Tower" by Dale Chihuly


While a dozen installations might seem like a paltry figure, realize that each work contains hundreds, if not thousands of individual pieces of glass. Take, for example, Lime Green Icicle Tower, a spiky cactus-like sculpture that stands 42-feet tall and soars almost to the ceiling of the new glass-enclosed Shapiro Family Courtyard. The structure weighs close to 10,000 pounds and contains 2,342 glass elements. All the more reason to keep the work here long after the show ends as the ideal welcome mat to the new $500 million Arts of the Americas Wing.


"Persian Wall" by Dale Chihuly


While the curator of the show, Gerald Ward, might be prone to hyperbole, calling Chilhuly “the greatest artist in American glass since Louis Comfort Tiffany,” you can’t help but be impressed by the artist when you walk downstairs into the Graham Gund Gallery and view the large scalloped shells of Persian Wall. Light bounces off the peach and orange-colored glass, creating an exuberant burst of color as if Monet’s water lilies came to life and were magnified.

"Mille Fiori" by Dale Chihuly

In the next room, a 17-foot long wooden rowboat called the Ikebana Boat is loaded with a whimsical mix of long-necked bird and flower-like vessels. Ward has placed the boat on a dark plexiglass surface where Chihuly’s vibrantly colored spectacle seems to float above water, its reflection enhancing the visual effect. The dance of shadow and light continues in the largest installation in the show, Mille Fiori (Italian for a thousand flowers), where spheres, red birds of paradise, seal pups, cattails, and additional amorphous objects share the long table under the sparkling lights.

Another favorite is Persian Ceiling, where you look up at a glass roof brimming with countless sand dollars, scallop shells, and various other sea forms. By all means, take a seat on the bench and gaze up to find tiny angels thrown in for good measure. In the adjacent gallery, six of his dramatic chandeliers, including the playful Iris Yellow Frog Foot Chandelier dangle from the tall ceilings.

Chihuly sent six 53-foot containers from Tacoma, Washington to the MFA, containing all the glass elements he would need to create his effervescent show. It would take his team 18 days to install the works while wearing socks and gloves in order not to smudge the glass. This joyous salute to color and sensual form is the perfect antidote to a long gray winter in these parts. Spring has finally arrived in Boston and, in addition to the tulips sprouting in the Public Garden, we have Chihuly.



In his former life when print was king, Steve Jermanok was a columnist on the arts for Boston Magazine, a contributing editor for Art & Antiques, and guest editor of the arts issue for the Boston Globe Sunday Magazine.  Now he’s happy to share his passion for culture with the readers of Everett Potter’s Travel Report. Reach Steve at his blog, www.ActiveTravels.com.


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  1. ed wetschler
    May 12, 2011 at 3:42 pm — Reply

    Steve, I’ve seen a lot of Chihuly (for starters, the in-laws live in Tacoma), and I find your suggestion — “Strangely, however, the bright light provided by Mother Nature seems to subdue Chihuly’s celebration of color. To truly appreciate the sensual appeal of Chihuly’s grand glass structures, one needs to head indoors…” — right on the money. Who needs sunshine? These works glow without it.

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