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ART REVIEW

Glass spectacular

The new Chihuly exhibit at the MFA is big and beautiful -- and strangely lacking

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By Sebastian Smee
Globe Staff / April 8, 2011

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Is it unfair to describe the majority of Dale Chihuly’s glass-based work as tasteless?

It certainly feels like inviting trouble. Taste, after all, is a social concept more than an aesthetic one, and is beside the point when judging serious art. People might disagree, say, about the aesthetic merits of Nabokov’s “Lolita,’’ but you wouldn’t pursue a conversation with someone who dismissed the book as “tasteless’’ (which of course it is). Nor would there be much to say in reply to someone who described the late paintings of Pablo Picasso as being in poor taste. Who cares?

And yet, the two concepts — art and taste — can never be completely separated. And if taste is primarily a function of social life, the truth is that Chihuly has for a long time now been a social sort of an artist.

The most noteworthy work he and his impressive Seattle-based team have done over the past few decades has been in social spaces: the foyers and courtyards of museums, the cities of Venice and Jerusalem, conservatories and gardens in Chicago and Coral Gables, Fla., and the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew in London.

For all these places, Chihuly makes spectacular art. Grandiose and eye-catching, his work is made to interact with architectural or natural environments, and aims squarely at seduction — the seductions of color and form and, not least, of virtuosic technique. It is, one might say, celebratory art.

So it’s no surprise — it’s just a little unimaginative — that over the past three years, three New England museums have celebrated the inauguration of newly built spaces with installations by Team Chihuly. First came the Chihuly show that launched the Rhode Island School of Design Museum of Art’s new Chace Center in 2008. Then came the Chihuly installation on the terrace outside the new study center at the Addison Gallery of American Art which reopened late last year.

And now comes a major Chihuly exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts. It arrives just a few months after the opening of the museum’s Art of the Americas Wing, the biggest architectural feature of which is a cavernous glass-walled and glass-ceilinged courtyard.

Though it is an attractive space, that courtyard is undoubtedly on the severe side. It cries out for something colorful, something biomorphic, something . . . something like the sumptuous splendor of a Chihuly glass sculpture!

That is what we now have. And I defy anyone not to like it. Called “Lime Green Icicle Tower,’’ it’s a bristling 42-foot column sprouting quills of glass. It looks so good it’s hard to imagine that Malcolm Rogers, the MFA’s director, will not find a way to keep it there long-term.

But the immediate occasion for its installation is a Chihuly exhibition, “Chihuly: Through the Looking Glass,’’ that continues below the courtyard in the new Ann and Graham Gund Gallery. The show is theatrically lit, nicely paced, technically eye-popping — and at the same time, weirdly enervating.

I have no quibbles with Chihuly’s factory-style operation, his terrific rate of production, or his immense popularity. None at all. Nor am I bothered by the general absence of ideas in his work: I am all in favor of senseless beauty, and would prefer it any day to most of the brittle, air-filled intellectual meringue that goes by the description of conceptual art.

It’s the works themselves that I find so off-putting. And again and again I find the problem with them is that they are tasteless.

They’re tasteless in the way that a 15-course meal might be tasteless, or a garage with a dozen Ferraris, or a wardrobe with hundreds of pairs of shoes. Too many of them derive their raison d’etre from numbers and scale, rather than from any kind of inner purpose. They don’t understand restraint. Even when they do give off a whiff of minimalist intent — as in “Neodymium Reeds,’’ an installation of tall purple glass reeds and birch logs — the combination of materials feels willed and strangely arbitrary.

You sense that if something is outlandishly ambitious, or if it is going to be technically difficult to do, that will be enough reason for Team Chihuly to do it. Make it big, make it bright, make them say, Wow!

Having said all that, Chihuly has found some winning formulas over the years, and some of them are on display here (that they have also been displayed in different variations at the RISD Museum of Art and at dozens of other locations around the world needn’t detain us). The most likable are his “Chandeliers.’’

Since 1995, these stunning pieces have been executed by Chihuly’s chief gaffer (or glass blower), Joey DeCamp. They’re made by attaching hundreds of colored glass shapes to a steel armature that is suspended from above. The gathered forms — snaking and twisting, long and short, bulbous and attenuated — create extraordinary effects of teeming energy and massed color.

Occasionally, the colors are abrasive, as in “Orange Hornet and Eelgrass Chandelier.’’ But on the whole, they come off brilliantly: Of the six here, “Iris Yellow Frog Foot Chandelier’’ and “Silvered Chrysalis Tiered Chandelier’’ seemed best.

But the funny thing is that specific distinctions about the merits of individual works is almost beside the point when contemplating Chihuly. You’re either ready to be seduced — or you’ve had enough.

Aware of the potential onset of Chihuly-fatigue, the artist keeps looking for new technical feats with which to impress us, and new settings in which to work his magic. Occasionally he hits the mark: “Lime Green Icicle Tower’’ is a case in point.

But on the whole, his many innovations, such as tossing lots of colored glass pieces in a wooden boat (“Ikebana Boat’’), or spreading them on a glass ceiling overhead (“Persian Ceiling’’), tend only to embarrass one’s memory of that first seduction.

They’re like daily deliveries of unwanted flowers after a regretted one-night transgression.

Sebastian Smee can be reached at ssmee@globe.com.

CHIHULY: Through the Looking Glass At: Museum of Fine Arts. Through Aug. 7. 617-267-9300. www.mfa.org.