Contrary to popular opinion, which has it that every mortal who has ever seen a piece of glass by Dale Chihuly has melted and slobbered over it like Mencken over an oyster pot pie, Chihuly's art isn't that hard to resist. What you have to do is resist resisting, give in and let it have its way with you.
There's plenty of it to give in to right now, in the Baltimore Museum of Art's exhibit "Dale Chihuly: Installations 1964-1996." Chihuly and his team of glass blowers and installers create works of enormous scale, as much as 3- and 4-feet in their largest dimension, and then put them together in multiples to form whole environments.
His macchias look like one-time vases growing into sea forms, and they burst with all the colors you can imagine and then some. One of them makes an impression, but Chihuly creates a "Macchia Forest," 23 on pedestals of various heights from below eye level to just beneath the ceiling. They're so cleverly lighted that they seem to glow from within, and some people have a
hard time believing that they don't.
His "Persian Pergola" consists of 450 pieces of glass, from tiny to tremendous, resting on a clear glass ceiling above your head, so that you wander under it looking up at the kaleidoscope overhead.
For the museum he has created a "Baltimore Museum of Art Persian Window" by floating 16 of his flowerlike Persian pieces across the east wing's window wall. As the sun rolls by, reflections of these pieces drift across the wing's inner wall.
"Niijima Floats" are globes of glass, their skins encrusted with color, which really do glow from within through the use of neon placed inside them. They rest on a sea of bits and pieces of clear glass, as if bobbing on choppy water.
The "Spanish Orange Sea Form Set" takes a single color and runs it through variations of form so you seem to be looking at once at one flower and a bouquet of flowers. The "Baskets" eschew color for the delicacy of white blending into clear glass, with tiny filaments of black winding around the lip of each of these nesting forms.
These seductive wonders are so easy to enjoy, so sensually satisfying, that they produce a grandly perverse temptation to belittle them as art. It's easy to remind yourself that, after all, they aren't subject to interpretation. They don't tell us anything about the human condition, do they? Are they not therefore craft, if extraordinary craft? And, in today's world, beset with troubles and problems that real art tries to grapple with, are not these fantasy-like creations, that would have us succumb to pure pleasure, a form of decadence?
They are points that can be argued, but the other side can be argued, too. Chihuly has taken glass to a level probably never before achieved, but it is not the technical accomplishment that counts the most. If it were, this work would indeed be craft. Chihuly's real achievement lies in his ability to make us happy, to take us out of the world and of ourselves for a time, and to lead us like children again in paths of pure delight.
Not many can do that, and if we resist the charms of this work, we do ourselves a disfavor. As for the human condition, isn't one of our noblest qualities the desire to create beauty and the ability to respond to it?
It must be said not every aspect of the exhibit succeeds equally.
The "Persian Pergola" is a neat idea, but it doesn't work as well as it ought to. The steel structure that holds it all up is so heavy-looking that it interferes with our appreciation of the piece's lyricism, and looking up through the glass, we all too often find ourselves looking into lights. And the window wall, let's face it, fails to achieve the desired magic. To look at it is to find yourself trying to be enthusiastic, and that's always a bad sign.
On the other hand, the flower-like "Ikebana" and the baroque "Venetians" -- individual, highly intricate works -- are much more fascinating in the flesh than they are in reproduction. They reward extended looking.
Decide before you go to "Chihuly" to leave your troubles -- and your cavils -- on the doorstep, and let Mr. C. direct your feet to the sunny side of the street.
What: "Dale Chihuly: Installations 1964-1996"
Where: The Baltimore Museum of Art, Art Museum Drive near Charles and 31st streets
When: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesdays through Fridays, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays; through April 28
Cost: $5.50 adults, $3.50 seniors and students; $1.50 ages 7 through 18
Call: (410) 396-7100
Note: Dale Chihuly will lecture at the BMA tomorrow at 3 p.m. Free with museum admission