New York

Dale Chihuly

Charles Cowles Gallery

Dale Chihuly, the preeminent practitioner of art glass in the United States, has reached the point in his career at which he hardly needs apologize for his work’s proximity to craft. His recent enormous, hand-blown glass balls, entitled “Niijima Floats,” are fragile, unwieldy, expensive, useless, and completely unsuited to home display. They are also visually fascinating, technically virtuosic, and daringly ugly, as only great art glass (think of Tiffany or Lalique) can be.

Chihuly’s previous works, including the “Basket Set” series (inspired by Native American baskets of the Pacific Northwest), the “Seaform Set” series (inspired by shells, jellyfish, and the like), and the “Venetian” series (inspired by the colors, textures, and sculpted forms of Murano glass) are all wildly popular; his medium and sensibility are as appealing to monied lowbrows and kitsch queens as to aficionados of high art. Examples of all three series are on view in this exhibition; to people new to Chihuly’s oeuvre, these earlier works make a better introduction to his art, prettier and less challenging.

The floats, on the other hand, are really quite daring: they sit directly on the floor, spotlit, like benthic organisms under a diver’s spotlight or jellyfish washed up on a beach or (as Chihuly suggests through their names) glass fishing-net floats. Their surfaces—several of the floats feature a gold-leaf technique developed during the “Venetian” series, as well as streams of tiny air bubbles—suggest swirling currents, pebbly streambeds, and biological organisms. Their coloring is as richly layered as Japanese lacquer or an undersea reef.

It’s this tension—between the fantasy world of high artifice and the natural world in its infinite mystery and variety that gives these most recent works a greater significance. (The same tension exists in the “Seaform Set” series, but there it is overshadowed by prettiness and easy appeal). In the darker and more complicated floats, Chihuly uses a traditional craft material to make a substantial sculptural statement. In doing so, he definitively establishes himself as a singular and visionary artist, cleverly disguised as a craftsman of kitsch.

Justin Spring