On the day of a recent media preview, cheery, diligent workers scurried like worker bees to complete more than 50 installations composed of 2,890 pieces of glass. Few working artists can command such a legion of staffers -- a small army to execute his ideas in the world. Over the course of three decades, Chihuly has also become a phenomenon who has erased the divisions between high art and craft, in part by taking art into the public sphere.
Perhaps because of that willingness to bring his art to the people, he seems to bridge a divide between art connoisseurs and lay people. Art-phobes and art-snobs alike can find common ground in Chihuly's ability to blend accessibility with beautifully rendered allusions to natural forms like cacti, jellyfish, lilies and seashells.
Chihuly in the Garden represents the best potential of public art in exhibiting outside the cloistered, exclusive gallery and museum. The exhibition proves how intoxicating art seen in an unexpected context can be.
Chihuly's glass sculptures can admittedly lose some of those metaphorical properties when seen in such close proximity to the real McCoy in this Botanical Garden exhibition. Instead, it is often whimsy and surprise that make many of the works succeed in this strange but beguiling new context.
The most striking work may be the spiraling banana-yellow and pimento-red "Howell Fountain Tower Installation" that greets visitors at the vista encompassing the great lawn promenade and the Conservatory in the distance. Reaching for the sky, the work is a hullabaloo of barely contained manic energy. The twirling glass shapes twisting into porcine tails and Medusa tentacles become a stand-in for the fountain's dancing eruptions.
Many of Chihuly's glass works magnify nature's intoxicating weirdness. The bulbous heads of the red and orange striped "Tiger Lilies," which erupt merrily from slender stalks, and the gaping maws of "Yellow Trumpets" in the garden's Conservatory evoke the nearly sentient spirit of growing things. Tucked into the green growth, these perky, comical pieces have a science fiction element, as if the garden woke up one morning to find alien invaders living amid its geckos and ginger.
Because the element of surprise in these pieces is so powerful, it might have been more effective to see less work represented in Chihuly in the Garden and more attention given to advantageous settings. Some of the pieces give the impression of just trying to fill up the garden space, like the overrepresented "Ikebana" or the tiny colorful orbs sprinkled on the hothouse floor. Some of the pieces feel like afterthoughts -- little baubles scattered around the Conservatory to be discovered by children like Easter eggs.
Even less successful are works with a more decorative feel, like the metallic, colorful ball clusters in the "Polyvitro Chandelier" snaking toward the Conservatory dome; it looks like the Mylar balloon display at Publix. Rather than respond to or harmonize with the natural setting, such pieces seem gaudy amid the subdued flora, like a pink bow placed on a Pekinese. Equally out of place are the cobalt blue "Baskets" set atop steel pedestals at the entrance to the Conservancy. They feel like interlopers foiling Chihuly's integration of art and life. Queenly and self-important, these gallery objets d'art seem out of place next to the more humble exotica of purple orchids and tropical birds.
Chihuly's influences, In the Garden underscores, are legion. His shapes range from the gourds and stamens of nature to the Byzantine onion domes and the quirky elongated shapes of '60s decorative glassware. The Botanical Garden setting beautifully illustrates the wellsprings of humankind and nature as sources of inspiration for artist and viewer alike.