WEIRD BUT CIRCUMSPECT: Chihuly’s Mille Fiori.
The main problem with “Chihuly At RISD,” on view at the RISD Museum’s new Chace Center (through January 4), is that there’s not enough Dale Chihuly here. The preeminent Seattle glass artist can be cheesy and slight, but when he’s on he wows you with jam-packed, dreamy, rainbow-laden, happy spectacles that seem like mutant hybrids of wedding cakes, balloon animals, and teeming tropical reefs. It’s about too-much-of-a-good-thing excess, but this show — even with more than 30 works — feels spare and small.
Mille Fiori fills an alcove with stripey globes and wiggly yellow, black, and green pillars resembling seaweed. At its center hangs a tall chandelier with lots of wiggly tentacles. The parts are alluringly weird, but the sum feels oddly circumspect. Like the rest of the show, it could use at least twice as much glass.
Chihuly received his MFA from RISD in 1968. The next year he helped start the school’s glass department and taught there on and off until the late ’80s. The exhibit has a retrospective feel, though all of the glass dates from 2006 or later, because it features new versions of major past series — cylinders, chandeliers, “Venetian” vases, baskets.
In Neodymium Reeds, purple glass rods sprout from birch logs like spring growth in a rotty forest bottom. The lustrous rods feel weightless — or rather like they’re being stretched skyward. It’s a neato gesture, and at first astonishing, but because it’s the same gesture repeated over and over without counterpoint, it grows dull. Then you start suspecting that it’s not more complex because it’s mass produced by Chihuly’s teams of assistants.
From there things get worse — his “Venetian” vases are gaudily lame and his splattery flower paintings recall Jackson Pollock knockoffs you find at suburban art fairs. But just when you think Chihuly can’t get more tacky, he wows with something like Glass Forest #4, a recreation of an installation he first made at RISD in the late ’60s. A thicket of phallic white glass shoots grow upward from gooey-looking pink bases and glow from within (and hiss) like neon lights. They’re situated in a semicircular alcove sheathed in reflective black that makes it feel like some marvelous Star Trek planet.
“Studio Glass in Rhode Island,” the companion exhibit, featuring work by nine of Chihuly’s former students (through January 4), is mainly uninspired ’80s-style post-modern riffs on traditional vessels. And the cramped installation diminishes promising stuff — like the brilliant sculptures of wood and PVC that Bruce Chao has been erecting in a forest in southeastern Massachusetts.
But downstairs, Wisconsin artist Beth Lipman’s installation, “After You’re Gone” (through January 18), is ravishing. It includes a fragile-looking glass settee and a tour de force wooden table overflowing with shimmering glass dishes, apples, pears, pig’s feet, cheese, fish, birds, cake, oysters, and flowers. All of it is made of clear glass. Everything on the table seems to have tumbled over, the dinner ruined. It feels like a haunted fairy tale with a world turned to ice and on the verge of melting away.