New York

Dale Chihuly

Charles Cowles Gallery

Dale Chihuly’s glassworks have met with a popularity most artists barely dream of. Among the causes for this are the dramas of their color, simultaneously intense and quasi-transparent; of their liquid shapes, the frozen traces of glass’ fluidity in its molten state; and of their peculiar, tense feeling of suspense, a product of the argument between their deceptively lush, sensual voluptuousness and their actual inelasticity and shatterable fragility. Most of all there is Chihuly’s formal inventiveness, the constant variations he is able to spin on both natural objects (shells, say, or flowers, or, in the recent show, the serpentine spikes he calls tusks) and glass’ traditional vehicles: the bowl or dish, the vessel or vase, even, bless us, the chandelier. On top of that, this brief description in no way captures his work’s baroque extravagance and the riotous, almost obscene suggestiveness of its rhythmically multiplying curves.

Chihuly has the Modernist artist’s exploratory mastery of his material, but the history of the material he has mastered introduces issues that many Modernists would not have welcomed: craft, for one, and its overlapping dimensions of decoration and function. Not that glass is functional here; the massed bulbs and whorls in Chihuly’s chandeliers exist not to light but to be lit, and his distended bowl-and vase-like forms, though they might grudgingly support some fruit or flower, would visually overpower anything within ten feet. I suspect that use value is avoided for a reason: made explicit—by fitting the chandeliers with lightbulbs, say—it would overpower the works’ status as art objects, pushing them out of the gallery and museum world and into the world of shops and interior designers. Even as it is, the Franklin Mint could learn something from their marketing—an association Chihuly probably wants to avoid, inspired though he claims to have been by the production-line setup of Andy Warhol’s Factory. Still, that side of the glass medium’s memory comes and goes from his art like a ghost.

Meanwhile the works are decorative to the point of risking kitsch. I’m sure, in fact, that for many viewers these are gorgeous tchotchkes, and perhaps not even that gorgeous. Chihuly’s colors and filigrees, and the supple fluxes of his work’s surfaces, can be beautifully delicate, but as often—and the recent show is an example—their success lies in their excess: overripeness is all. Mexican Green and Blue Mirrored Chandelier (all works 1996) is a bunch of grapes that’s somehow gone green, blue, mirrored, and eight feet high, while Red/Yellow Tusk Wall Cluster Installation positively writhes: glass tendrils spiral madly out from a central core, as if a chrysanthemum were on some kind of radiation-induced growth binge. Yet both works have other shades also, the chandelier echoing the power of, say, one of Louise Bourgeois’ multibreasted mythic animal sculptures, the wall cluster similarly evoking Medusa or some related symbol of psychosexual queasiness. The fact is that anxious as Chihuly might be to preserve his work’s status as art, he is producing a hybrid—a junction of art, craft, and commerce, purist truth-to-materials, technical accomplishment, and camp fabulousness, slick theatricality, associative complexity, and questionable taste. Though I doubt this is his ambition, part of the interest of his work is that it sets all these qualities in play, and that the relative values it encourages us to assign to them are not the predictable ones.

David Frankel