Chihuly at VMFA
I’ve converted Gaston LaChaise’s “Standing Woman,” an icon of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, into a caricature of Mary Catherine Gallagher as a symbol of my reaction to the new Dale Chihuly exhibition at the museum. It’s not that the show is unimpressive, and I have a lot of respect for the work and achievements of Dale Chihuly, but, to me, the substance of the show is so much about art as a production commodity and about the phenomenon of the artist’s exploits, that access to the power of the art as experience is diminished. We are invited, instead, to view a large selection of the artist’s vast output, that, at times, seems to have been selected at random by an intern working in the shipping department of the Chihuly warehouse.
I’m not new to the work of Dale Chihuly. I first encountered him at a convention of glass artists in Charleston, West Virginia, back in about 1979. I remember his work from that conference as ambitious, big and beautiful. And the new show at VMFA is not without moments of wonder and clarity. The two parts I appreciated the most were the ceiling installation, seen in detail view above and the room full of “reeds,” that is shown in detail below.
In the ceiling display, hundreds of individual works are collected and stacked overhead resting on flat panels of glass, with light filtering through. With this piece, there is an overall effect of flattening the visual field so that these hundreds of things read like a single object. Combined with a compelling perspective shift (the overhead mounting) and an ongoing attention shift between the overall and the detail view of the piece, the effect is transformative.
The room full of “reeds,” located at the end of the tour, is engaging and stands out from the rest of the show for it’s clear focus and singular concept. Compared to the rest of the exhibition, which is supercharged with garish color and tends towards over-indulgence, the “reeds” provide a contemplative moment that allows the mind to expand. Kind of like a heavy sigh at the end of a tiring journey.
On the VMFA website, this show is listed a a “major exhibition,” but it reads more like a retrospective. With the possible exception of the room full of “baskets” that we sort of dashed through, the ideas for most of the work in the show appeared to have originated in the 1990’s or later, though I could not tell whether the pieces themselves were old or new.
Reacting to the “retrospective” feel of the show, I kept looking for more historical information about the artist and I kept wanting to see early work in an exhibition that seems to be mostly about the range and amplitude of Chihuly’s work. But then, maybe I have become the curmudgeonly, text happy museum visitor that museum label writers have learned to ignore! Then, again, it may be my very curmudgeon-li-ness that keeps me from renting the audio guide to the exhibition that could provide the very information I seek! Oh well.
At this point, I tire of trying to extrapolate meaning from an art experience that is probably intended to have none. After all, I do recall that Chihuly is quoted in the exhibition’s introductory label saying something about the pitfalls of thinking too much about the work when he is making it. Maybe it is best to simply enjoy the pretty colors and ambitious, effusive mash-up of form that comprises most of the exhibition and leave it at that.
Chihuly has produced an enormous body of work that has great appeal to many, and causes people to hand over their VISA cards promptly. Colorful, shiny things are fun! Heck he is even a JOB CREATOR, employing leagues of energetic, muscle-bound artisans who spew out wondrous glass forms to a throbbing rock rhythm while the TV cameras roll! What could be better?
Still, curmudgeons like me may regard the show as awkward – a conglomerate of glitz and excess, assembled haphazardly, sometimes at random and celebrated with everything that regional (provincial?) marketing can bring to bear. …like Mary Catherine Gallagher dancing out of control, crashing through a wall and proclaiming herself a SUPERSTAR!
The rest of the images in this post are not meant to be representative of the art in the show. These are just me having my way with the exhibit as a photographic subject: