When I walked into the Montréal Museum of Fine Arts recently to see the Dale Chihuly exhibit, I had two thoughts right off the bat: Holy crap! and I will not be able to think of enough superlatives to describe this.
I’m sure it’s not an uncommon reaction to the seriously mind-blowing creations of this world-renowned, Washington-based artist. Some might, however, be more elegant. Whatever.
I’ve seen individual works by Chihuly in several other museums over the years, but MMFA’s show, aptly called “Utterly Breathtaking,” is the first time I’ve had the surreal pleasure of a Chihuly experience. That is to say, walking among, and under, his vibrantly colored creations. The museum curated the works beautifully — sparsely and with brilliant lighting that makes the glass sculptures seem to glow from within.
When you climb the stairs to the second-floor exhibition rooms, Chihuly’s anemone-shaped discs float overhead, suspended along the sides of the stairwell. On the landing, you are greeted by a piece called “Turquoise Reeds”: a stand of tall, blue tubes of glass seem to grow like stalagmites from an arrangement of oversize driftwood. Both of these installations give the sense of marine creatures and botanicals, but electrified.
Stroll into the next room and you can literally lie down on provided cushions to meditate on the “Persian Ceiling” overhead. A transparent dropped ceiling holds up hundreds of anemone- and globular-shaped glass works in vivid hues and patterns. The lighting above them sends color cascading down the walls and on the upturned faces of gallerygoers. I totally want this.
A succession of other rooms — darkened so that the glass seems to float in space — present more astounding feats of imagination and technique. Gaping at an enormous explosion of squiggles, I think both How could he make this? and How the hell was this packed and shipped without breaking? Glass, after all, is fragile.
(I also wondered how the museum could risk installing a monumental yellow piece titled “The Sun” outside, exposed to both the elements and potential vandals.)
Wall text explains some of the glassblowing techniques, such as the Italian patterning called mille fiore, and also reveals Chihuly’s undying love and respect for his medium:
One can only wonder what kind of genius thought of blowing human breath down a metal tube, forming a bubble inside of a molten blob of glass ... For me, it’s the most mysterious and magical of all the inventions or materials that mankind has invented or discovered.
Chihuly has exhibited in and been collected by major museums all over the world. The Tacoma, Wash., native founded an international glass center, the Pilchuck Glass School, in Washington State, and has received dozens of awards. Last year, Chihuly Garden and Glass opened in Seattle, comprising an exhibition hall, glasshouse, theater and garden. Now approaching 72, the artist has clearly not grown tired of his craft.
One of the exhibition rooms at the MMFA, however, might be read as a fantastical metaphor for passing to another realm — or perhaps for simply passing along these gifts of glass. Titled “The Boats,” the installation consists of two life-size dinghies filled with glass tendrils, stems, floral shapes and spheres, as delicate as they are vibrant. Are the glassworks floating toward an unknown destination? Or are they tethered to these shores? It’s hard to tell.
Either way, these boats, and these rooms, contain the alchemical magic of earth and light that began in grains of sand.
“Chihuly: Utterly Breathtaking” at the Montréal Museum of Fine Arts, 1380 Sherbrooke W., through October 20. Info, 514-285-2000. mbam.qc.ca