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The Art of Craft

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He's almost a household name. Over the past decade or two, Dale Chihuly has sneaked up on us, emerging as a kind of rock star of the art world. Yet, unlike most glass sculptors, he is something of a throwback to the days when glass was a craft that yielded either useful objects or decorous bric-a-brac. Some of his pieces in this show -- say, his fanciful 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea-looking chandeliers -- do have use value, but not his botany-inspired installations such as Mille Fiori XVI, which, at $290,000, is a pricey Š objet d'art? Conversation piece?

The quest for clarity becomes further complicated by the emergence in recent decades of the contemporary crafts movement, which seeks to blur the boundaries between arts and crafts; for instance, the way Thomas Mann's jewelry sometimes suggests petite miniature sculptures. What distinguishes Chihuly from the others is a reversal of sorts: By developing techniques that took glass out of the predictable genre of little shiny baubles and into a larger-than-life realm that elicits the shock of the unexpected through a kind of wonderment of scale, he redefined the rules of the game and his own place within it. The undersea look of so much of his work, even when inspired by ordinary garden flora, contributes to a Disneyesque sense of the fantastic. And anything that instills a sense of wonder in the viewer is arguably fulfilling a function of art.

We could almost say that Chihuly's most significant claim to fame as an artist is his craft, his flamboyantly fantastical and dreamy technique, which takes us nearly full circle in the sense that so much of his art really is about craftsmanship as a kind of spectacle. His vision is apparently decorative for the most part, yet his work elicits wonder by defying our habits of perception and the expectations that attend them. As for his star status, that apparently involved a bit of marketing. A co-founder of the famed Pilchuk Glass School -- a popular, open-to-the-public, Seattle-area attraction -- Chihuly enjoyed the admiration of the masses early on, which may have helped to instill his evident showmanship. That tendency to play to the crowd could be seen at his big Atlanta Botanical Garden show, which was held over by popular demand, having pulled in 360,000 visitors and generated an economic impact of some $50 million over its eight-month run.

This Arthur Roger expo is obviously much smaller, and you don't have to pay to get in. Installations like Mille Fiori XVI evoke botanical gardens, maybe on another planet or deep below the sea. It may have been inspired by earthly gardens, but those long, green, spindly (6-feet tall) glass tendrils look more like sea kelp than anything in your grandma's backyard. Other oddly amorphous forms seem to float like jellyfish, and here too the elements appear slightly larger than life even by the standards of local elephant-ear plants.

Cluttered, medusa-like light fixtures such as his Coral Red Sconce, River Blue Chandelier and Gilded Sapphire Chandelier look unabashedly aquatic, suggesting orgies of eels and sea anemones, jellyfish and luminous invertebrate sea organisms. Critics may debate his depth as an artist, but if the experience of the Atlanta Botanical Garden is any example, Chihuly serves as an effective bridge between high art and popular taste. Anyone who can bridge that divide is obviously doing something, and by bringing such work to New Orleans, Arthur Roger gives us the opportunity to make up our own minds. All of which makes our local assessors' new inventory tax on artists puzzling, to say the least. While cities such as Atlanta are doing what they can to make art accessible, the New Orleans tax assessors are putting a burden on artists that is unknown anywhere else in the nation, as well as providing major obstacles to our galleries' attempts to import work by the best-known artists working in America and the world today. If anyone doubts the impact, consider that one Julia Street gallery has already closed down because of it. Put that together with recent attempts to shut down live music on Rampart Street, and one might logically conclude that the city of New Orleans has suddenly declared war on art and music. What's going on around here, anyway?

Dale Chihuly's show at Arthur Roger, featuring works like Mille Fiori XVI (pictured, in detail form), features installations that evoke botanical gardens in an otherworldly context.
  • Dale Chihuly's show at Arthur Roger, featuring works like Mille Fiori XVI (pictured, in detail form), features installations that evoke botanical gardens in an otherworldly context.

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