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Shattering the Glass

Dale Chihuly brings his overblown and overpriced "art" to town. Will Houstonians buy it?

There is an axiom in art that says the talent of an artist is inversely proportionate to the size of his signature. Dale Chihuly signs his drawings really big.

First and foremost a glass artist, the drawings are the worst thing in Chihuly's show at McClain Gallery, but they are also the most revealing. The signatures are so ridiculously large that they become a design element, they make the drawings feel like autographs, which is somehow appropriate because Dale is star and CEO of the Cult of Chihuly, i.e., Chihuly Inc. He has videos, books, innumerable gallery and museum shows and a series of flamboyant glass installations in places as far-flung as Venice and Jerusalem. But Chihuly's genius lies not in the glassworks he creates with his teams of minions but in the way he has turned their output into an industry. He is a Thomas Kinkade for a slightly more discriminating and significantly more affluent set. Where prices at Kinkade's mall storefronts range from a couple of bucks to thousands, Chihuly's start at $4,500 and soar upwards of $250,000.

The autographed drawings are the only things in the show directly created by Chihuly. The hastily executed images of flowers and baskets in cheesy shades of pink and turquoise are not about expressiveness but about an impatient arrogance that says, "Anything I touch is automatically great." In one of the numerous videos on Chihuly -- screened, incredibly, on PBS -- he is shown swaggering over to make a three-minute drawing with all the self-conscious grandiosity of a B-movie actor playing a famous artist. Like any celebrity, Chihuly knows that all fans want is a piece of him, some tangible connection. With an autograph, penmanship is irrelevant.

Chihuly is asking a whopping $250,000 for his Gilded and Amber Chandelier.
Jan Cook
Chihuly is asking a whopping $250,000 for his Gilded and Amber Chandelier.

In his Houston exhibition, Chihuly presents his standard array of glass forms: "baskets" (bowl shapes), chandeliers, awkward ikebanas and elegant "Persians" (floaty forms anchored to the wall). Many of the baskets, or fruit bowls, or whatever they hell they are, are nice. But clustered and bunched together on a low pedestal like an installation, they make clear the problem: Chihuly is trying to present what are essentially functional or decorative objects as fine art. He's trying to artify conventional forms by displaying them in a haphazard assemblage. Several people who saw the show said the grouping of the objects reminded them of buying china and glassware at a department store, with different sizes and versions of the same thing. Give me the big blue one -- no, wait, I want the medium blue one. If they were neatly arranged according to size, they could be in the housewares department at Neiman's -- except Chihuly is so overpriced, he makes Neiman's look like MacFrugal's.

Admittedly, the chandeliers, however, look cool. Composed of multiple blown-glass stems and orbs and swirls all wired to a central frame, they are multi-tiered teardrop masses that emanate light. But like a lot of Chihuly's work, they look cool only until you see he has worked and reworked the same shtick hundreds of times. Glass is an inherently beautiful material, and like a woman getting by on her looks, Chihuly coasts on the material's innate seductiveness, its sensuous surface, its ability to hold and refract light. Light is a powerful tool -- just ask Thomas Kinkade, Painter of Light.

While glass is a fantastic material, Chihuly never fully explores its potential. Certainly, he is pushing the craft envelope to create "bigger and more," but he has stagnated in his own rote forms and strategies. While his work may be formally adventurous from a traditional craft standpoint, it's limited and superficial from a fine arts perspective.

I saw Chihuly's installation at the King David Museum in Jerusalem in 1999. He took a similar set of overblown tchotchkes and scattered it around the ruins like an interior designer trying to place a client's bric-a-brac. Nothing related or responded to the space in which it was shown. I remember thinking what a missed opportunity it was -- an artist could do such amazing things there. True, the glass was spectacular when lit up at night, but a string of $2.99 Christmas lights looks magical, too, once you plug it in.

Chihuly really cranks this shit out. He works with teams of glassblowers to realize his creations. And since the 1976 car accident that caused him to lose sight in one eye, his work is almost exclusively executed by others. This is a perfectly valid art-making strategy, even if you're hale and hearty, but it also seems to be a necessary justification for the broad collectorship Chihuly is targeting. And the plot thickens when you learn that the people crafting those six-figure objects reportedly make around ten bucks an hour and rarely receive benefits.

A friend of my brother's once worked for Chihuly, and he likes to tell a story about setting up an underwater photo shoot for the artist. His job was to swim down to the bottom of the frigid pool and repeatedly arrange and rearrange the glass sculptures. Long hours later and near hypothermia, he finished. The pool was then heated and the grizzled Chihuly jumped into the warm water with two scantily clad women -- the artist as obnoxious rock star.

And this is far from the only tale of Chihuly employee abuse floating around. The artist is notorious in his hometown of Seattle, known for being charming to collectors while reducing secretaries to tears. In 2001, The Blue Hammer (www.thebluehammer.com) published an article called "Is It Okay to Hate Dale Chihuly?" In it, former Chihuly employee Jim Hearsey describes the man as an "irrational tyrant surrounded by an army of trembling sycophants." Seattle artist Charles Krafft refers to him as the "Liberace of the art world." And glass artist Larry Stauffer, while agreeing with the chorus that Chihuly is "a piece of shit," admits, "I don't care! He made $23 million last year! The more successful I am, the more I understand what it takes to get there, and I appreciate that."

And that is where Chihuly's real artwork lies, in his ability to harness his outsize ego to organize and promote his glass production. His studio turns out 200 to 300 pieces a day. His installation teams present galleries with specifications for everything from ladder heights to the exact types of lighting required. He sends representatives to promote his work at his openings. He has managed to make himself into a brand name, so much so that some collectors want to purchase "a Chihuly" sight unseen, just for the sake of having one.

Ultimately, however, Chihuly is even cannier than Thomas Kinkade. He doesn't have to pay the overhead of mall storefronts -- galleries pay to bring in his work. It's just too bad he doesn't have a slogan. How about Dale Chihuly, Blowhard of Light?

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