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Art Review

Heart of glass

Virtuosic, but to what end? Chihuly's work inaugurates a new RISD gallery.

By Sebastian Smee
Globe Staff / October 3, 2008
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PROVIDENCE - The launch of a new museum building calls for a splashy inauguration. And so it is that the Rhode Island School of Design's wonderful new Chace Center, designed by Spain's Pritzker Prize-winning architect Rafael Moneo, opens with a show of recent work by Dale Chihuly.

On paper, Chihuly checks all the right boxes. Not only is he the world's most famous glass artist, he studied at RISD himself, graduating in 1968. Better still, he returned to the school the following year, after spending time in Venice at a glass factory on the island of Murano, to set up RISD's first glass program. All of this enables the RISD Museum of Art to present this show, in the Chace Center's new exhibitions gallery, as a sort of homecoming.

Why, then, does it feel so lackluster?

Chihuly can work wonders with glass; no one is arguing with that. He has a strong record of innovation, as well as ambition and energy to burn. But under the self-induced pressure of ceaseless demand and a factory-style production, his work long ago fell into kitsch.

Chihuly no longer blows glass himself - he has teams of assistants for that - but he does make drawings. And so, as if to emphasize his own personal contribution to this show, almost the first thing we see is a display of 80 drawings arranged in a grid on a long, high wall.

These works, executed in an array of shiny and metallic paints, riff on floral themes in a brisk, colorful, splatter-adorned idiom that cries out "freedom," "joy," and "self-expression," but that is finally indistinguishable from the kind of pointless, desperate-to-please art you see at most community art fairs.

Many have Chihuly's zigzagging signature scrawled prominently across the lower half. There have been artists - Miró, for instance - who have made great play incorporating signatures into their compositions in novel and arresting ways. But here, the Chihuly trademark feels arbitrary and intrusive - and not a little preening.

To see the wall drawings, you pass under Chihuly's "Persian Ceiling": clear glass panels that support a cornucopia of marine-inspired shapes and trinkets in luminous colors, casting patterns of golden light against the walls immediately beneath. It sounds better than it looks. It's also, unfortunately, an abbreviated version of a piece that has been installed more extensively - and impressively - in Salt Lake City and London, among other places.

The same can be said of several other installations here, reminding us that Chihuly's enterprise is vast and unsentimental, with clients to gratify all over the world.

Happily, there is one moment in the show of unalloyed brilliance. It's an installation called "Mille Fiori" ("a thousand flowers" in Italian). Once again, it's been installed in different versions elsewhere. But this version, its palette pared right back, is extraordinarily seductive - quite enough reason to visit the show on its own.

It consists of a series of tall, snaking forms with fluting tips arranged on a dark, mirroring floor, backed by a semicircular wall. In other versions of the piece, Chihuly has favored bright colors right across the spectrum. Here the forms are dominated by black and chartreuse - a kind of warm but slightly acidic green - and the effect is stunning. Some of the vertical forms are striped, so that when they twist and flute or fan out, the stripes stretch and pull, creating marvelous optical effects.

Along with two chandeliers resembling upturned Medusa's heads (a Chihuly specialty), and a selection of idiosyncratic vessels and bowls, the show includes two other installations.

One, called "Neodymium Reeds," is a cluster of tall, candle-like poles made from neodymium glass emerging from a stack of birch logs. The poles are a beautiful matte purple, but the two materials don't really mesh. There is something vacant about the piece - not just formally, but emotionally, too. The same can be said about "Glass Forest #4," an installation involving more tall glass forms, this time with neon light thrown into the mix. (Chihuly worked with neon back in his RISD days, too.)

Chihuly typically elicits oohs and aahs from a combination of self-conscious virtuosity and site-conscious spectacle. At his best, he combines these elements masterfully. He is never better than when interacting with preexisting environments - especially glass houses and grand buildings.

Unfortunately, conventional gallery spaces limit him. They also expose his superficiality. There's nothing wrong with the RISD Museum's new exhibition space. But unwittingly, its inaugural exhibition demonstrates the perils of self-confident virtuosity depleted of inner purpose.

Happily, RISD is not relying solely on the Chihuly show to attract the public. For starters, there's the new building by Moneo to get excited about. It may be missing the lantern-like wraparound glass facade that was part of the original design, but it is full of deft and subtle touches.

As well, the museum's superb permanent collection, not just a teaching resource but a great gift to the public, has been freshly and innovatively installed in the old 1927 building, which is linked to the Chace Center by a glass bridge. The 20th-century gallery, which combines design and decorative arts with painting and sculpture, is hectic, to say the least. But sensitive placements and interesting juxtapositions make the crowded effect enlivening instead of confusing.

There is also an engaging show devoted to the author and illustrator David Macaulay, who has devoted his life to demystifying the way things work - from the human body to the architecture of Rome - through drawings intended for books.

But the best display of recent art is Beth Lipman's installation of cast and blown glass called "After You're Gone." Lipman, who had a residency at RISD earlier this year, was inspired by the opulence on display in the museum's period rooms in Pendleton House, devoted to American decorative arts.

She may use the same medium as Chihuly, but in other ways the contrast between the two is extreme. To begin with, Lipman favors clear instead of colored glass. And instead of transposing the forms of nature, she uses the medium to suggest an array of ideas connected to wealth, materialism, and death.

If all this makes her work sound dry and cerebral, it's not. Visually, it explores different registers - sumptuous and overflowing one minute, sly and oblique the next - to induce reflections on the absence of loved ones in the midst of plenty.

The centerpiece is a huge tableau called "Still Life With Metal Pitcher" - a round table redolent of Dutch still life painting, absolutely overflowing with glass food, vessels, and a miscellany of other objects. The clear glass gives everything a ghostly aspect, at once hollow and fragile. Something (or more likely, someone), you feel, is missing.

Elsewhere in the room are a settee (based on one owned by George Pendleton) made entirely from glass, as well as pieces of glass wallpaper patterns, and an array of glass squirrels and slugs.

Slugs? You got it. The whole thing's undoubtedly eccentric. But it's also wonderfully original. Lipman, born in 1971, is definitely someone to watch.

Chihuly at RISD

After You're Gone: AnInstallation by Beth Lipman

At: Rhode Island School of Design Museum of Art, Providence, through Jan. 4 (Chihuly) and Jan. 18 (Lipman). 401-454-6500, www.risdmuseum.org

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