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SIGHTS : A Garden of Glittering Glassworks : Dale Chihuly's show renders dazzling, almost tactile in-your-face statements in a fragile medium. Subtle? No way.


On more than one front, the Dale Chihuly show at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art is a holiday blockbuster. It's more than just another exhibit. It's a feast suitable for families, aesthetes and those disinclined toward contemporary art.

Reportedly, this show has lured record crowds with the kind of busy foot traffic that recession-battered art institutions pray for. Entering the museum's garden of glittery delights, it's easy to understand why.

Among the operative adjectives here: festive, fantastical, erotic, theatrical, virtuosic. Less operative adjectives: subtle, restrained.

Suddenly, the Seattle-based Chihuly, a legend among living glass artists, has blossomed into public visibility. He is collected by Bill Gates--like Michelangelo. His works can be seen on the sets of "Disclosure." He is so hot that he verges on being uncool, triggering the art world's fear of things too popular.

Make no mistake: Chihuly's show is a visual and sensory wonder to behold, a dazzler of a show worth the effort to see. There is also something suspicious about the lengths gone to here: The sheer will to dazzle may leave you feeling exhausted.

This is art that thrives on paradox. The pieces are, on one level, super-real--these bright, hard and large objects. Conversely, they court a sense of the surreal, with their subversion of scale and a sense of bearing.

Often, Chihuly's gift is contingent on the transformation of his physical materials, the ability to give his glass a fluidity that belies its brittle nature. Nowhere is this fool-the-eye instinct more apparent than in the centerpiece of the show, the "Sam Chandelier," which confronts the viewer entering from the McCormick Gallery entrance.

A conglomeration of bulbous yellow forms, the work suggests nothing so much as a peculiar assemblage of sagging balloons--or condoms. A merry trickster, Chihuly puts his illusionism up front here. Museum guards have their work cut out for them, fending off the natural instinct to touch the sculpture and confirm that it is, indeed, glass and not rubber.

Consuming one gallery is "Macchia Forest," a "flower bed" of huge multicolored glass blossoms, scaled at Lewis Carroll proportions. The art looms over the viewer, suggesting an undersea garden. That sensation continues with "Persian Pergola," in which a collection of frilly glass sculptures is scattered overhead, creating a canopy of iridescence.

Many of these installations take on the facade-like aura of stage sets. Enhanced by key use of lighting--and lack thereof--the installations often appear to be backdrops for untold, unconscious fantasies. Not surprising, Chihuly recently designed sets for the Seattle Opera's production of "Pelleas et Melisande."

Luminous orbs rest on a sprawling bed of glass ice in "Nijima Floats." For "Santa Barbara Persian Wall," works have been installed, relief-fashion, on one far wall of the McCormick Gallery. Viewers stand, or sit in meditation, before this full-frontal dream-world flower arrangement, in awe or bemused perplexity.

Although dwarfed by Chihuly's more elaborate installations, some of the most impressive work here comes in small packages, with the mutant vegetation allusions of his "Ikebana" series. These humbly scaled (relatively speaking) glass sculptures in cases next to the museum atrium arrive at clever formal fusions.

Eggs yield sprouts of vegetable life. Twining plant life ambushes the vases intended to enclose it. Alien flora, behaving in irrational ways and stirring up bizarre allusions, is the subject.

Undeniably, this is a Show, a display writ large and one that refuses to be taken lightly--as in casual, breeze-through-the-museum detachment. You can't help but admire the mastery of craft and the largess of design.

Yet there is an emptiness underlying the fanfare, as well. You may leave, senses tickled and imagination massaged, but your mind feels a bit duped.

Chihuly himself will be in town this weekend for various events. There will be a book-signing at the museum store Friday from noon to 1:30 p.m., three "Paint With Chihuly" sessions at the Ridley-Tree Education Center on Saturday, and, at 4 p.m. Sunday in the museum auditorium, a reprise of the lecture he gave last November.

Another Year, Another Art Pile: Gazing down memory lane 1994, it was a slow but solid year in art in the county. There were no earth-shattering changes, but a comforting, regular flow of stimuli from the usual sources.

The most unusual usual source was--and is--Art City II, where assorted group shows and such diversions as sTeVe Knauff's TV-oriented installation spectacular accented the alternative nature of the place. Across town, the Buenaventura Gallery kept up a good pace of pleasant shows. Ventura College's two galleries continued to provide a forum for provocative art, and the Ventura County Government Center provided a steady flow of shows.

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