- - Thursday, October 25, 2012

Dale Chihuly still reigns as the king of glass art. His hand-blown assemblages are in the collections of more than 200 museums as well as places like the Bellagio hotel and casino in Las Vegas.

The 71-year-old artist attributes the popularity of his work to “scale,” meaning his ability to manipulate glass into large, voluptuous installations and seemingly defy the material’s fragility. He certainly is a virtuoso when it comes to technique.

Mr. Chihuly’s over-the-top creations have arrived at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, where visitors can find them for sale in the gift shop as well as on view in the galleries. Like other museums around the country, the Richmond institution is relying on the glass art to boost attendance and herald its latest addition.

The elegant, contemporary McGlothlin Wing, designed by London-based architect Rick Mather and opened in 2010, is worth a visit even for those like myself who view Chihuly Inc. as a formulaic, self-promoting enterprise.

Two of the installations in the show are placed strategically outside the galleries to highlight the assets of the new wing. “Blue Ridge Chandelier,” fittingly hung next to a Tiffany window, entices visitors to travel to a corner of the sunny atrium. A grouping of 200 red spears draws attention to a reflecting pool outside the museum cafe.

The rest of Mr. Chihuly’s work is confined to the lower level, where theatrically lit galleries present a well-paced sequence of eight installations.

However, visitors looking for something new in the artist’s work will be disappointed. The exhibit presents the familiar groupings of bulbous, snaking and twisted forms that his portfolio has long comprised. “Red Reeds,” for example, was shown at the Kennedy Center in 2010.

Mr. Chihuly knows a good thing in repeating his past successes with only slight variations on his winning themes.

Wearing his signature eye patch, he recently conducted a tour of the exhibit to reflect on his career. The artist acknowledged that he has not blown glass in decades, after losing sight in his left eye during a 1976 car accident and injuring his shoulder three years later while bodysurfing. He oversees a team of about 90 glass blowers and craftspeople to create his art.

Of his passion for the molten material, Mr. Chihuly said, “I love the way light comes through glass and the fluidity of it. It’s like working with water.”

Asked about new developments in his work, he pointed to “Laguna Torcello” in the show. This multipiece work resembles a fantasy landscape with curving glass tendrils and pods assembled into plantlike forms. Its chunky “rocks” are made from Polyvitro, a plastic used by Mr. Chihuly for works requiring less weight than glass.

While the pieces aren’t innovative in themselves, they are assembled into a 65-foot-long installation, one of the biggest ever mounted by the artist.

Sensuous and seductive in its gleaming shapes and colors, the busy work epitomizes the appeal of Mr. Chihuly’s art — as well as its excess. Numerous “trees” and metallic pieces crowding the display recall overdone holiday decorations.

Similarly, the environment opening the show is stuffed with an abundance of gaudy baubles like a Mardi Gras float. Two rowboats are heaped with brilliant glass spirals and orbs and surrounded by speckled balls, all seemingly placed at random on a reflective platform.

In these works, Mr. Chihuly seems more interested in impressing the viewer with the numbers and sizes of his spectacular glass pieces than with their individual beauty. His installations often lack focus and can seem arbitrary in their arrangements.

Yet the artist is capable of subdued expression, as in his “Basket” series of soft amber vessels patterned with scratchy lines. Clusters of them are displayed on a rustic wooden bench and wall shelves in “Northwest Room,” an environment representative of Mr. Chihuly’s sources of inspiration.

Colorful Pendleton blankets, American Indian baskets and portraits of tribesmen shot by photographer Edward S. Curtis are displayed alongside the glass. Unfortunately, these artifacts dominate the room to detract from the delicacy of Mr. Chihuly’s creations.

His best works engage their surroundings, as in his “Persian Ceiling,” made up of more than 1,000 pieces of glass. The installation unfolds overhead to reveal layers of vessels shaped like jellyfish, starfish and shells. Walking under this backlit canopy is like encountering a bright world under the sea.

Vibrant color has always been a hallmark of Mr. Chihuly’s work, and the exhibit doesn’t disappoint. “Macchia Forest” presents his classic shell-shaped sculptures in luscious rainbow shades. It plays to Mr. Chihuly’s strength in evoking natural forms without literally representing specific flora or fauna.

The show concludes with “Blue Reeds,” dozens of glass spears paired with salvaged cedar logs. The juxtaposition appears forced in comparison to the “Red Reeds” set into the natural setting of the museum garden. The clustering of so many aqua spikes lacks a clear rationale other than to impress through repetition, a weakness apparent throughout this show.

WHAT:Chihuly at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

WHERE: Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, 200 N. Boulevard, Richmond, VA

WHEN: Now to Feb. 10, 2013; 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sat.- Wed.; 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thurs. and Fri.

ADMISSION: $20 for adults; $16 for seniors, students and groups of 10 or more.

PHONE: 804/340-1405

WEB SITE: www.vmfa.museum/Chihuly

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