Thursday, August 21, 2008

Another opinion on the Chihuly show at the de Young

I had a chance to get a second look at the infamous Chihuly exhibit at the de Young last week. It’s the first time I’ve gotten back there since Kenneth Baker ripped the show apart in the SF Chronicle. Another curator friend echoes Baker’s criticism, saying “seeing the Chihuly show is like going to Pottery Barn.”

“Educated viewers cannot look for long at Chihuly's work without wishing there were something to think about," says Baker, "So they think about something else. “ He states that Chiluly’s work is not capable of holding our attention in the museum or upon reflection later. Perhaps it’s due to the endless amount of time I’ve spent contemplating the issues of high and low art as it relates to comics, comic art, pop art & fine art, but I find lots things to think about, both in the gallery and after. In the case of the Tabac baskets, for example, which are used as prime target for criticism, I can only speak for myself as an artist when I say that when I study another work that closely and consider it long enough to add my own interpretation, I am usually honoring that work in some way. To me this reverence is clear in the way that the glass pieces and the baskets are displayed. Although they aren’t spot lit, as Baker points out, the baskets have a real presence in the room. The baskets didn’t have to be there. The glass could have been displayed in any number of ways, yet the baskets from Chihuly’s personal collection are included for the viewer’s appreciation and education. How often are Native American baskets included in blockbuster exhibitions? Seeing both together, the viewer can appreciate the organic forms and patterns of both.

I often agree with Baker’s assessment of work in the Chron, but in this particular review he sounded very elitist to me. Baker is clear about what he thinks of as "high" glass art and that he thinks of Chihuly's work as "low" art that should be sold at Gump's. He says that these days only "intellectual content still distinguishes art from knickknacks." I can’t say that I loved every bit of work in the show, but the “reeds,” and the chandeliers are worth seeing, and anyone who loves plants will enjoy it. However you parse Chihuly's intellectual intentions, I think there is still a place in the art world for work that has emotional impact and revels in the shear joy of mastery over craft and material.

The exhibition has been packed as people flock to the de Young to see what all the hooha is about. As a de Young staffer told me when I expressed sympathy about the bad review, “everybody has their opinion. People love to see car crashes and are coming to see what could possibly be so bad. If this is the response we will get from bad reviews, bring it on.“ Yes, it’s flamboyant, and I didn’t leave the exhibit thinking about existential angst, but it did provoke thought about high & low, respect for organic forms and the creative process. Does art have to be a bummer to be “important”?


  1. Hi Kim!

    I really enjoyed this blog! Your comments and the pics included 'took me back' to the de Young and the Chihuly exhibit. Though I'm sure I don't know enough about art to tell the difference from high and low, I do know that his work moved to tears at one point! It was the spheres in the boat. So MUCH... color, texture, space, light, dark, spots and spirals! How nice that your words could take me back there like that.

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  3. Thanks for the compliment. I think that underlying Baker's review there is continuing disapproval of the curatorial direction of the de Young(too mainstream)and he picked this show to make his point. The de Young has been fortunate that the review has made people curious to see for themselves, and the public response seems to be very positive. The reeds were my favorite. Husband Marc liked it too.