See-Through Virtuosity

Othoniel's palatial MoCA installation is more clever than inspired

Part of that frisson is the result of the way the show is set up. At strategic points, Othoniel literally veils the bulk of "Crystal Palace" with sheer, floor-length, pale-blue curtains made of cotton tulle netting. You can see the show stretching out before you through a gauzy haze, or you can step up (or squat down) to one of the gold-rimmed holes in the fabric of these spangled curtains for a more voyeuristic peek at what's ahead.

MoMA has also done its customary fine job of altering its environment to accommodate the exhibition. Most of the walls of the museum's interior, which usually divide the space into several smaller galleries, have been removed, with one long wall configured to form a barrier between the show's introductory area and its main body. And I didn't notice until near the end that the museum's remaining walls have been painted a pale lilac to complement Othoniel's palette, which includes shades of purple, amber, blue, and green.

Two components on their own make "Crystal Palace" worth taking in. Those preparatory watercolor drawings I mentioned earlier are presented as introductory material, but they easily outshine almost everything else in the exhibition. They were sketched when Othoniel was working in his Miami Beach studio, and they have great delicacy, a tentativeness missing from the three-dimensional pieces.

At first glance, the show is otherworldly.
Patrick Gries
At first glance, the show is otherworldly.

The other exceptional work, which Othoniel made during a stay in Mexico, is Lágrimas (Tears) (2002), an installation of 60 glass containers of varying sizes and shapes, crowded onto a long, narrow, white table about waist-high. All are filled with water (you can see condensation inside some of them), and most are topped with big, round, glass stoppers. They contain a total of 1,000 small glass pieces in a variety of colors and shapes, inspired, according to the brochure, "by the popular tradition of 'passion bottle,' which involves setting afloat glass representations of the instruments of Christ's Passion."

Like the rest of the show, these bottles are dramatically flooded with light, with mixed results. The shiny surfaces pick up the light to play off one another, so that each piece resonates visually with surrounding pieces. But here as throughout the exhibition, that light can also come across as too bright, too harsh. It brings out an unflattering garishness in some of the works.

An artist friend I ran into wasn't especially impressed with Othoniel's work, likening some of it to Christmas décor with aesthetic pretensions. At the time, I pleaded ambivalence; in retrospect, I'm not so sure. "Crystal Palace" may well be that rare, exotic specimen in the art world: a show notable more for the ingenuity of its installation than for its content.

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