glass art on display at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston
PERSIAN CEILING Walking through Chihuly’s installation is like looking up from the bottom of a fairy-tale tide pool.

Back in 1995, Seattle sculptor Dale Chihuly was in Finland creating glass chandeliers to be suspended over the canals of Venice in a major outdoor installation the following year.

"At one point there was a bridge over a river," Chihuly tells me of his time in Finland, "and I decided to throw a few pieces off the bridge to see what would happen, if they would break. I was hoping they wouldn't, and they didn't. So I started making a lot of pieces that I could throw in the river. And there were some Finnish teenagers around. All those kids have their own boats. So I got them to take their boats and go out and gather up the glass as it went down the river and then bring it back to me and I could throw it back in again. As the boats came up full of glass, I just loved the way they looked."

>> SLIDESHOW: "Chihuly: Through The Looking Glass at Museum of Fine Arts" <<

"Chihuly: Through the Looking Glass" at the Museum of Fine Arts includes an Ikebana Boat (2011) that the experience inspired. It's a riot of glass plants — blue and red funnels, spiky green things, blue and violet tentacles, a giant yellow onion — spilling out of a 17-foot-long plain gray wooden boat. The boat sits on black reflective Plexiglas that makes it look as if the vessel were floating on a becalmed dream sea.

The MFA says the 69-year-old "may be the greatest American artist in glass since Louis Comfort Tiffany." Of course, who is the competition? But the comparison is apt because of the positions of Tiffany and Chihuly as studio directors (Chihuly's works are all created with large teams of assistants) and because of how they became popular icons of the medium. Chihuly has stretched glass into ever larger and more extraordinary shapes. "Certain things are just better when they're bigger," he says. His sprawling, too-much-of-a-good-thing glass installations have made him unique. Visitors to the MFA last week were oohing and aahing. You will too.

These days, Chihuly has a wild mop of curly gray hair, paint-splattered shoes, a pirate-like eyepatch (he lost the sight in his left eye in a 1976 auto accident), and the aw-shucks demeanor of a big man who has wrestled with fire. He began working with glass during studies at the University of Washington, the University of Wisconsin, and Providence's Rhode Island School of Design in the '60s. It was the dawn of Minimalism's less-is-more asceticism, but he figured more is more. At RISD, where he founded the glass program in '69 and taught for a decade, he collaborated with James Carpenter in the late '60s to make Glass Forest (not at the MFA), a sort of Star Trek thicket of tall white glass shoots sprouting from gooey-looking pink bases and lit from within with neon.

He has straddled the worlds of studio craft and fine art, as shown by handsome brown glass bowls inspired by Native American baskets that he began making in the '70s. (The versions here, like all the glass in the exhibit, are from the past few years.) But his vision is generally more akin to the acid-rock light shows of the psychedelic '60s, or more recent pop spectacles with a fine-art veneer like Cirque du Soleil. This has left him open to charges of artistic unseriousness, but his installations aren't far removed from the heralded spectacles of Anish Kapoor and Tara Donovan.  

>> SLIDESHOW: "Chihuly: Through The Looking Glass at Museum of Fine Arts" <<

"Chihuly's work is American in its apparent vulgarity, its brazenness, and its fearlessness to move further out west even if there is no further west to move to," former Metropolitan Museum of Art curator Henry Geldzahler wrote in praise in 1993. This describes both Chihuly's strength and his weakness.

A gallery of vases decorated with big flowers (some are reproductions of 1989 works) evokes '80s mall décor of generic, flamboyant, oversized decorations trying too hard to be ingratiating. And installations in the new Shapiro Family Courtyard atrium of a wall of zigzagging neon lights and Lime Green Icicle Tower (2011) rising 42 feet high like a giant green icicle cactus are Chihuly at his most bombastic. The intrinsic, seductive beauty of glass can hide the slick soulnessness of some works, but here scale can't keep you from seeing that it's more of a dull thing.

But walk downstairs to the new Gund Gallery under the courtyard and you find the striking Persian Wall (2011), a group of 27 large rippling dishes set on posts just above the floor and climbing up the wall. They resemble shells, coral, or jellyfish in autumn harmonies of red, orange, and yellow. Spotlights from above project the patterns in the blown glass down the walls, completing the undersea effect. Later in the show is Persian Ceiling (2011), which allows you to walk under a glass ceiling supporting a thousand rippling striped dishes, gourds, cups, and balls, a few little translucent gold cherubs, and one clear bubbly octopus. It's like looking up from the bottom of a fairy-tale tide pool.

Spotlighted in a darkened gallery is Mille Fiori (2011), a 58-foot-long black Plexiglas reflecting "pool" sprouting rainbow-hued plants — red spears, blue tentacles, orange flowers, green spikes, spotted and striped globes. It might be too sugary, but the floral forms have an air of sex and the buzz of menace. It's enchanting, like the garden inside Willy Wonka's chocolate factory, or Candy Land, or a witch's cookie cottage — and it might be a trap. At the end is an 11-foot-tall tower of red, orange, and yellow tentacles. Some wiggle out from the bottom as if in search of prey. It's midnight in the psychedelic swamp garden of good and evil.

“Chihuly: Through the Looking Glass”
Museum of Fine Arts, 465 Huntington Ave, Boston | Through August 7

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Related: Top 10 New England Art Exhibits of 2010, 10 must-visit New England art exhibits for early 2011, Slideshow: Chihuly: Through The Looking Glass at Museum of Fine Arts, More more >
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