MFA’s Chihuly Exhibit: A Glass Act

By: Joseph Gordon Cleveland

Dale Chihuly’s decade-spanning career has been defined more by the virtuosity of his glasswork than the emotional impact the pieces themselves create. Hardly surprising, then, that many critics dismiss his work as merely ‘beautiful, decorative objects’. Less surprising still, considering Chihuly’s first focus of study was interior design. But as I discovered at the Museum of Fine Arts’s new exhibition, “Through the Looking Glass,” Chihuly’s work, like his medium, is what you make of it.

The exhibition features twelve installations in total, including two in the museum’s impressive, if stark, new Ruth and Carl J. Shapiro Family Courtyard. Of the two, “Lime Green Icicle Tower” is the most dramatic, and a seemingly deliberate move on the Museum’s part to hit you with Chihuly’s greatest trick — meaning scale — before you see the actual exhibition. It is clearly meant to impress, but in the end it enhanced the space more than it engaged most of its viewers. Shock, awe, circle ’round, then move on: fifteen seconds, in total.

As I meandered through the exhibition itself, set below the courtyard in the new Ann and Graham Gund Gallery, other works, generally of the quieter (and older) variety, did have impact. Tabac Baskets Statement, for example: as singular pieces, the baskets are beautifully organic and raw, but it is the deft placement of these amorphous forms, their milky, monochromatic beige glass punctuated by veins of rust, that gives the installation meaning. Here Chihuly makes a statement with his work, and it’s one worth paying attention to.

Other installations were less successful. The ubiquitous ‘Persian Ceiling’ (the face of the exhibition), for example, is quite beautiful, but it feels contrived, superficial: merely a new iteration of a concept Chihuly has peddled more times than bears enumerating, and the kaleidoscopic cacophony of color made it difficult to appreciate the subtleties of the pieces themselves, or the work as a whole. It does however — as many patrons realized — make for a great photo opp.

At his best, Chihuly imbues his work with a striking stillness, and the results are resonant, spellbinding. Even the less impactful work is often quite beautiful, and always technically daring.