A solo exhibition of Dale Chihuly, internationally renowned glass artist, hit the Royal Ontario Museum in summer 2016. CHIHULY is striking, Instagram-friendly, and will undoubtedly draw crowds. The exhibition feels like an aesthetically pleasing reprieve from chaotic city life: walking into the darkened gallery space in the Garfield Weston Exhibition Hall in the ROM’s lower floor where Chihuly’s works are alit, feels like entering an enchanted cave. While CHIHULY is visually striking, if there’s one thing that’s missing, it’s the depth that allows for a thought-provoking exhibition.
Chihuly, born in 1941 in Tacoma Washington, has been creating large-scale glass installations for 50 years. In terms of glass art, he’s been a trailblazer, leading the way to developing the medium of glass as an accepted fine art form. Chihuly’s installations have been exhibited around the globe: from Venice’s canals, to London’s Kew Gardens, to the Dallas Arborteum. His work, and the public spaces it often inhabits, serves to collapse the notion of the art gallery as a stuffy, elitist place. This sense continues, even when he’s exhibiting within major museums and galleries, as with the ROM’s CHIHULY.
The exhibition includes both new and early works that represent Chihuly’s practice over the past four decades. The ROM’s 17,000 square-foot Garfield Weston Exhibition Hall makes an ideal gallery space for exhibiting Chihuly. The exhibition features eleven installations. Four of these pieces, Persian Trellis, Red Reeds on Logs, Five Orange Baskets, Icicle Towers and Chandeliers, were specifically designed for the ROM. Designing his art for a specific space is a hallmark in Chihuly’s practice as an artist; his large-scale pieces take up the perfect amount of space: overcrowding and awkward spacing aren’t issues.
Throughout his career, his installations have been accessible, fun, and bright. ROM’s CHIHULY is no exception. The installation grabbing the most attention (at least by Instagram standards), Persian Ceiling, consists of more than one thousand Persian glass elements. The installation is lit from above, creating a kaleidoscope of colour, form, and transparency. Large pillows are scattered on the floor, encouraging visitors to lay on their back to experience the installation.
Where CHIHULY falls short is that it expects too little of its viewer. That’s not to say that art always needs to demand criticality from its audiences; sometimes it’s nice to simply look at, and enjoy, aesthetically beautiful things. But, this is the ROM – Toronto’s most-visited museum, and an institution which relies on public funding. Gallery goers can, and perhaps should, be encouraged to engage with the art in meaningful ways, beyond curating their own perfect combination of social media hashtags.
While Fire Orange Baskets and Northwest Room are a nod to Chihuly’s Northwest roots, inspired by Northwest Coast Indian baskets, the envelope is never pushed in terms of addressing relevant contemporary and historical issues. Red Reeds on Logs reveals a picturesque Canadian scene. 150 ‘Red Reeds’, of tapered red glass, rest atop Ontario sourced birch logs. The installation will surely remind the viewer of Ontario hikes and cottage weekends; the composition is potentially powerful – haunting, even – but viewers may be left wanting more. Rather, the installation’s text panel focuses on the glassblowing technique for making the reeds. Throughout the exhibition, interpretive tools, including said text panels, are sparse, and offer little insight or truly engaging subject matter.
There’s no arguing CHIHULY incites wonder; the large-scale installations feel almost immersive in the exhibition space. Chihuly’s skills, techniques, and inventiveness alone make CHIHULY worth a visit. The art exhibition as spectacle is a phenomenon that won’t be going anywhere soon – as seen with Gabriel Dawe’s immensely popular WONDER exhibition at the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery – but it may just leave visitors wanting something more.
Visit CHIHULY at the Royal Ontario Museum until January 2nd, 2017. For tickets and information, see rom.on.ca/en/chihuly.