In the darkened exhibition galleries deep within the de Young Museum, Dale Chihuly has installed an enchanted candy forest. With the help of other glass art masters, the Chihuly factory filled eleven galleries with an incredibly showy collection of sculptures and installations spanning more than thirty years. If you like color and candy, the art might make you salivate.
The sculptures are lit with neon and other luminescent elements. Many hold the shape of the usual glass suspects -- vessels and flowers -- while others are more unusually shaped like sea anemones and speckled balls but are still similar to things you might find in a garden décor catalogue. More breathtaking are the less utilitarian displays. Viewing an installation of tall violet glass stems piercing perfect, horizontal tree trunks felt like standing near a cool river in a petrified futuristic forest. Old rowboats overflowing with deluxe glass candy were like a child's sugar shock fantasy come true. It would be surprising if the de Young has not yet seen a kid try to lick one of these objets d'art.
Speaking of art objects, The Chronicle'sKenneth Baker says that is not what Chihuly makes, calling the work "decoration" with a lack of "intellectual content." Despite the sculptures' brilliant, glorified rainbow beauty, he says they have no place in a museum. But if a person wakes up one morning and decides he'll use all three hundred colors in his studio and meticulously does so without repeating the same combination of hues to create a collection of otherworldly bowls, he's an artist in my mind -- not just in his technique but in his undying obsession with color and his persistence in production. Yes, the fact that Chihuly has a team that produces these objects makes me question his artistic integrity. But Richard Serra doesn't single-handedly shape ten-ton hunks of steel, and Christo and Jean Claude didn't hang each of the orange fabric flags of The Gates by themselves either. Sol Lewitt passed away last year, but a team of professional artists is drawing his retrospective right now. Jeff Koons has ninety employees producing his sculptures and paintings, but just like any other profession, the top banana always gets to slap his own label on other people's efforts.
The final installation of Chihuly at the de Young was just like the grand finale of a fireworks display -- every color, shape, and wow-factor is employed, and your mind gets blown. It's loud, it's bright, it's glorious, it's the end of the show. Now go buy some souvenirs. Though my jury is still out on Chihuly's place in the art world, this exhibition did make me think. It made my mind race with questions: How much bubble wrap is needed to ship an enormous vase holding a glass Venus flytrap? Is Chihuly a pirate? His eye-patch may be due to a car accident, but his boatloads of glimmering treasure have to make you wonder. It's actually more likely that Chihuly is a cousin of Willy Wonka and borrows the Oompa Loompas. What would a lickable Chihuly sculpture taste like? How many flavors would his art come in? I was disappointed to find that the gift shop was not selling swirly snozzberry Chihuly lollipops.
If you plan to skip this exhibition or wish to ruin the surprise, check out my photos on Flickr, including one of the outdoor Saffron Tower of glowing glass spaghetti in the museum's garden as seen from far away on the viewpoint above Sunset Heights.
Chihuly at the de Young and other site-specific installations at the Legion of Honor are on view through September 28, 2008. The documentary Chihuly in the Hotshop will air on KQED HD August 11, 2008 at 9pm and August 17 at noon, and on KQED LIFE (Comcast cable channel 189) August 17 at 7pm.