Saturday, July 2, 2011

Profiles in Florida: Dale Chihuly

Despite having the oldest continuously occupied settlement in the United States, Florida is culturally very young. Eddie Izzard has a joke about coming from England ("where the history is") to Miami Beach and hearing someone intone, "We've restored this hotel to the way it was over fifty years ago." Aside from enjoying the natural beauty, filling up your day with local activities can be tough. Every time there's a thunderstorm, you see the same desperate look take over the faces of tourists, "What now? Do you think there's an indoor pool somewhere?"

Florida reacts to this absence of signature culture in two obvious ways, one of which you're probably familiar with: total contempt. Certainly plenty of people love cheap beer, NASCAR and Confederate history on their own merits, but a lot of pro-southern xenophobic culture-war stuff stems from basic insecurity. If you lack global sophistication, it's less embarrassing to say you were never interested in it anyway. Fuck you, I didn't even want to be in your club. The other reaction is less obvious, but once you learn to look for it, it leaps out at you. Culture-wise, a lot of Florida tries way too hard.

You can see it in little things, like a stretch along I-75 where a full-sized painted Air Force jet rises out of the ground on a giant metal pole. It tries to soar, but it's awkwardly damned to remain stuck to the earth like someone just javelined its butt up from the ground. The area has no connection to the aerospace industry whatsoever, a pretty tall order considering Florida is home to America's largest Air Force Base, four other Air Force bases and 11 Naval bases.

You can hear the strain of cultural effort in the cheery insistence of St. Petersburg residents who tell you that, aside from the beaches, they have the Salvador Dali museum. It's dedicated to a Spanish artist who lived in New York City and never in Florida itself. A woman from St. Pete once enthused at me, "We have a Holocaust museum!" Okay. She seemed like the sort of person who would assign a class to make dioramas of mass graves and encourage them to "really get creative."

The first time I ever went to Sarasota, several people made it a point to tell me, "Sarasota has more art galleries per capita than any other place in the United States." What they don't tell you is that a significant percentage of them are hobbies that wealthy northern retirees bought for their trophy brides to get them out of the house during the day because at least it's cheaper than a divorce. Another huge chunk of them seem dedicated to providing all of the pastel beach paintings of sandpipers and gulls required by America's motels. I once went to a gallery opening where, after looking at the 15 paintings on the wall, I asked the gallery "curator" what inspired a depressing installation piece of a foam mattress, an abused Durkheim paperback and a photo of Karl Marx. "Nothing," he said. "That's where I sleep."

Most public art doesn't fare much better, usually accidentally defining the intellectual and spiritual gulf between the names of art and what they physically look like and naturally evoke — calling to mind Paul Fussell's reference in BAD: or, the Dumbing of America to the University of Pennsylvania's garish and empty Covenant, which students immediately and rightfully renamed Dueling Tampons.

Aside from tasteful replicas of Renaissance statuary that seem to concede that Florida can do little to improve on them, so many public art pieces are exactly the kinds of bad fixtures you can readily imagine: odd upward explosions of metal in bright primary colors — like the earth just vomited a large order of McDonald's french fries — or disaggregated blocks spread over a public park in a manner scattershot enough that no one playing pick-up football would dare go over the middle to try to catch a bomb on a post pattern for fear of killing himself.

Because I've been going there a lot recently, I've noticed that almost all the baggage carousels in Tampa International Airport run ads for the "Chihuly Collection," a permanent exhibit of glasswork by Dale Chihuly, in the Morean Arts Center in St. Petersburg. The ads are sophisticated and elegant-looking, but, like most Florida cultural feints, they're a bit misguided. For instance, a giant billboard copy of the ad stands next to an industrial causeway running into the southeast end of Tampa. It looks elegant, too. It also just happens to be on a stretch of road where all the other billboards are in Spanish and for personal injury attorneys for migrant workers.

A loved one dragged The Wife and me to St. Petersburg to look at the Collection, and I really wish she hadn't. The counterpoint to the tourist's sense of despair every time it rains is the local's creeping flight response to participating in anything where everyone else around you is sunburned and dressed inappropriately for the weather. When you are the only person near you who obviously lives in the state, something is about to go wrong. You have to go. I didn't.

I like supporting the arts, and I didn't think anything of the $15 ticket price while standing outside the building and looking at fat guys in madras shorts and fanny packs. Where I started to blanche at it, though, was inside, after realizing that I'd looked at everything in the place in about 15 minutes. It's sort of an unfair comparison, but the Uffizi and the Louvre are about 15 bucks each, too. You can spend a day in each, and you should spend more, if you can. The important difference, here, is that you can't exhaust what they have to offer in less time than it takes to buy a beer between innings at a ballgame.

Surely this makes me sound like a philistine. Art shouldn't be measured in cost-per-minutes-looking, but the general effect of Dale Chihuly's work isn't really one of standing before art and feeling it inspire emotion so much as one of standing in front of pretty-neat shit and thinking, "Well, this shit's pretty neat." Chihuly and his team make great bulbs of glass and snarling and interlocking tresses of it, and they do this over and over and over. Their color astounds: you can see great petals of opaque vibrant oranges speckled with gold leaves and teardrops, fringed with striations and explosions of reds. If you know how glass blowing works, your response to the color might be similar to mine: "Wow, chemistry is cool."

There's no denying Chihuly's talent when it comes to mixing minerals to produce fantastically colored glass and to coordinating various strands, spheres and ovoids into a greater whole. The problem is, either the number of things one can do with these is fairly limited, or his imagination is. The dominant theme of color and shape in the Collection seems to be suspending something from the ceiling that looks like an inverted version of Medusa's hair if it were made out of dyed-red snakes that wanted to form a beehive haircut. It's like walking into a glass nightmare version of a panel from The Far Side. Others look like an upside-down Christmas tree that was watered daily with government-testing-grade LSD. Or the deranged locks I once saw in the sketches of a crazed old New Hampshire man who used a pen and a dry-erase board to illustrate a cosmology that not only featured "Man on His Path" and "The Beast" but also a creature called "The Wife of the Beast," with her "shreedy shreedy shreds of hair."

Soon after entering the Morean Arts Center and the Chihuly Collection, The Wife and I had this exchange, after doubling back on our tour through the gallery and making sure we hadn't somehow missed an entire wing:
ME: Is this it? This can't be it.
THE WIFE: This is it.
ME: Do you want to go to the gift shop?
ME: We should at least go poke around so we don't leave after 20 minutes and look like idiots.
THE WIFE: I think it's too late for that. They already took our money.
This isn't the way art is supposed to work. You don't say, "Really? Is that it?" You don't think almost instantaneously, "Did our wallets just get hosed?" You don't start wondering if there's an overpriced cafe at which you can get a shitty glass of wine just to make being in the building seem more like an "event." But that's what we did. Eventually, we made our way back to the entrance and saw a room playing a video all about Dale Chihuly and his team, and I took out my phone to look up stuff on him and figure out just who this bozo was.

1. Due to a surfing accident, he doesn't even blow his own glass. In fact, watching the video, he's indistinguishable from every local repertory theater director who stands around clapping his hands, saying, "Let's get to work!" and, "Brainstorm, people!" and, "I have grrrrreat ideas for what we can do! Grrrrreat!" before an assistant gets everyone organized, the actors cast themselves out of habit, the set designers pick the location and themes, and the chief donors hand out copies of the play they chose. Then the director ties a handkerchief around his neck and slurps Merlot noisily.

Chihuly walks around telling people what to do, despite the fact that invariably he tells them to do the same thing they were already doing before he walked over and noticed them. He just makes sure they do it really emphatically afterward. You might as well walk outside and chirp, "Earth, rotate!" then look at the ground approvingly and nod a lot before going back inside to the USA network's Independence Day NCIS marathon. His mouth ejects lots of positive and affirming words and vague concepts, and then he has other people assemble the finished pieces into one of the four or five types of pieces that he always has other people assemble them into, which are:

2. Perennial bulbs/unblossomed flower bulbs, pyramids of hair, lilypads, loose-lipped Georgia O'Keefe-shaped clamshells, variegated ovoids. If it's a hairstyle you can wear while shucking oysters near the pond in the garden you planted, it's a Chihuly! At least three minutes of the video consisted of his taking white bulb-shaped pieces of glass over three feet long, with long sharp stems, and just shoving them upright into the dirt, yanking them out, moving a few feet, then shoving them upright into another piece of dirt. It was like watching a heavyset, boring man assembling a Stonehenge out of the sharpened root ends of giant scallions.

3. Whoever made this video had the following conversation with the person who wrote the music:
VIDEO DIRECTOR: Have you ever listened to, like, really fast banjo getaway music?
VIDEO DIRECTOR: Okay, I want that.
STUDIO MUSICIAN: I can do that.
VIDEO DIRECTOR: But I want you to slow it way down.
VIDEO DIRECTOR: Like, banjo getaway music for people just walking around comfortably.
VIDEO DIRECTOR: And no banjo. I want you to do this on guitar.
STUDIO MUSICIAN: Not a problem.
VIDEO DIRECTOR: But you have to use an electric guitar, only try to make it sound sort of like an acoustic.
STUDIO MUSICIAN: O-okaay. Again, not gonna be an issue.
VIDEO DIRECTOR: And I only want four measures of it, but you have to repeat that for 15 minutes.
STUDIO MUSICIAN: Sure. Anything you want.
VIDEO DIRECTOR: I want that.
STUDIO MUSICIAN: Got it. You want sterilized non-bluegrass for yuppies to stand around to, looking like assholes.

4. Anybody who buys anything from Dale Chihuly probably perpetuates an unjust system whereby everybody actually permanently scarring their bodies by blowing glass gets a much smaller percentage of profits than some guy walking around like the world's most creative and insufferable garden gnome.

5. Someone should back over Dale Chihuly with a golf cart.

But that wasn't everything. I eventually got very frustrated with the video and, as I said, took out my phone, started looking up stuff about the guy and learned a few very important things. Chief among them: he's not from Florida; he's never lived in Florida; about the only connection he has to Florida is that his father was killed in an accident here. Secondly, he's featured in scores of different permanent collections across the country, where (besides being available online) anyone can purchase Dale Chihuly paperweights and miniature versions of many of his staple creations for prices that are totally ridiculous.

In a way, this is pretty much perfect. Dale Chihuly is the Thomas Kinkade of glass. He's the blower of light. He doesn't do his own work; he stamps his name on it anyway; you can buy it almost anywhere; it costs too much; and any artistic value is dwarfed by the sheer production scale of a handful of themes repeated ad nauseam. It's Florida—it's totally Florida. Some hapless gallery spent out the ass for a novel mediocrity, and to make good on their investment, they're gonna soak the occasional native and thousands of Midwestern and Canadian rubes who need something to do in town besides roast on the coast, get shitfaced on margaritas and hum Jimmy Buffet so much that you want to murder them. Everyone's going to cough up money for a crappy thing they can already get at home, except they're going to hope it feels like a unique local experience.

Still, something was bugging me. Watching the Chihuly video felt familiar, fitting, like the entire spool of tape was one unrealized and perfect epiphany. It wasn't that Chihuly glass is the perfect gift for that dipshit aunt who still thinks she's "artistic" but who spends every Christmas eating a Harry & David gift basket and reading novels about spending a summer in Tuscany trying to write a novel but instead being passionately fucked up against a pear tree by a Sardinian goatherd. No, that was the sort of thing that just leapt out immediately.

What took a lot longer to realize is that — with his ridiculously electric Ronald McDonald-style yellow shirts, bright red pants, eyepatch, silly hair, and his ability to stand on the periphery and yell at other people doing actual dangerous work — Dale Chihuly looks exactly like Captain Lou Albano.