Dale Chihuly at Marlborough Gallery

Installation of Dale Chihuly’s Mille Fiori at the De Young Museum, San Francisco, California

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The last thing I wanted to do in writing about Mille Fiori, an exhibition of blown-glass sculpture by Dale Chihuly at Marlborough Gallery, is to reiterate shopworn arguments about whether the decorative arts–or, if you prefer, craft–can be high art. Distinctions between media are real and important, and how well-suited a particular medium is to artistic expression is a question of great weight.

You could make a good case arguing that the malaise nagging the contemporary scene is a result of the lack of definable artistic boundaries. Once anything goes, consensus is lost and meaning is diminished–if not altogether wiped out. The blurring of artistic categories–the “legacy of the experimental spirit of the 1960s,” as the art historian Barbara Rose reminds us in the catalog–promised liberation. In reality, it has delivered a generation or three of artists left bewildered and blind by their own rootlessness.

Mr. Chihuly’s uncanny–indeed, sensational–knack for working with glass makes such arguments seem quaint. At Marlborough, he’s conjured an extravagant botanical fantasy, a garden of unearthly delights. Imagine yourself as Alice in Wonderland wandering through a crystalline land of flora and fungi, and you’ll have some idea of what Mr. Chihuly has accomplished. His sculptural forms are distended, twisting and ascendant, the colors luminous and ripe, the atmosphere arch, erotic and overheated. Lumping these dazzling creatures under the rubric of “craft” is impossible: Their untamed character refuses to conform to anything so mundane.

Having said that, filing the pieces under “high art” isn’t tenable, either. In its extravagance and vulgarity, Mr. Chihuly’s work comes precariously close to being kitsch. Sheer mastery can redeem a lot, but mastery that goes untested is mastery misspent. You leave Mille Fiori uncertain as to how rigorously Mr. Chihuly has deployed his gift–a telling indication, I think, of his limitations as an artist.

© 2004 Mario Naves

Originally published in the March 3, 2004 edition of The New York Observer.

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