See-Through Virtuosity

Othoniel's palatial MoCA installation is more clever than inspired

Maybe it was that name, shimmering with possibilities: "Othoniel: Crystal Palace."I envisioned some magical environment out of, say, Lothlórien, home of the tree elves in The Lord of the Rings. Or something as droll and pixilated as some of the settings in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland or The Wizard of Oz.Images promoting the exhibition certainly didn't discourage such speculation, and the artist's exotic-sounding name would be right at home among those found in Tolkien's Middle Earth.

But "Crystal Palace," now at North Miami's Museum of Contemporary Art, turns out to be, to build on the Oz reference, more like a "horse of a different color" -- something that confounds expectations, often profoundly. Depending on your expectations, that can be positive, negative, or even a little of both.

The show, which is more or less one vast installation that takes up almost all of MoCA's display space, is a collection of 30 or so glass-based... sculptures, for lack of a better word. (There are also 44 preparatory sketches in watercolor; more on those later.) The pieces are by celebrated young French artist Jean-Michel Othoniel, who has spent three winters in Miami Beach and professes to have found inspiration in South Florida.

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

The museum's lobby showcases some sketches and a photograph of Le Kiosque des Noctambules (2000), the work for which Othoniel is probably best-known, an ornate canopy of sorts fashioned from glass, aluminum, and ceramics. It's a site-specific piece, designed for the street-level entrance to the Paris Métro stop at Place Colette, which provides access to the Palais Royal and the Louvre. A press release for the show touts it as having become "one of the most famous public artworks in France."

The individual building blocks that together make up "Crystal Palace" were created shortly before and after Othoniel made his kiosk, and they have much in common with it. The artist's ingredients of choice for these pieces are blown glass beads or globes of various sizes, shapes, and colors, produced for Othoniel in the internationally acclaimed glass factories of Murano, Italy, using molds provided by the artist.

These glass forms, often slightly irregular in shape and incorporating intentional flaws, are then put to various uses by the artist. In the long, narrow corridor that feeds into the gallery where most of the show is housed, he presses them into service as a handful of "lanterns" that hang from the ceiling. Examples of another element that appears throughout the show are at each end of the corridor: huge glass bead "necklaces" of up to 20 feet long, suspended from the ceiling and trailing onto the floor.

At the far end of that entry corridor, you'll round the corner to find the rest of the exhibition. Along with the other necklaces are more than a dozen pieces Othoniel calls "banners," glass-and-metal constructions that look more like ceremonial totems. These consist of tall, slender metal columns festooned with more of those ubiquitous glass beads and highlighted by glass shaped into hearts, rings, hooks, and other forms. Some of the metal rods are mounted on the walls, so that they lean in, with the banners suggesting a space for hosting a ritual procession.

A few bigger pieces are scattered throughout the gallery, ranging from an archway and an imposing cross to an elaborate item inspired by the myth of the unicorn. A wall near the cross features Paysage amoureux (1998-99), which includes long, thin strands of tiny, amber-colored beads -- some single, some double, some cascading onto the floor, others looping to intertwine with other strands. And again, there are larger glass hearts, rings, hooks, and icicles adorning the lower reaches of these strands of beads.

The exhibition's would-be pièce de résistance is the dramatic finale, a large work called Mon Lit (My Bed) (2003). Its frame is similar to that of Othoniel's canopy for the Paris Métro stop, with metal rods and glass beads connected by a web of rings made of molten metal. In the center rests a not-quite-square "mattress" topped with what the artist has described as a "fluffy pink felt quilt." What it more closely resembles, however, is a swath of asbestos the color of Pepto-Bismol. He also characterizes the quilt's two dozen or so decorative touches as "silk embroidered carnations," but what I saw were circular pieces of pale pink fabric with blood-red centers, looking more like eyes or nipples than flowers.

Viewed from the opposite end of the gallery, the bed projects an aura of mystery that unfortunately dissipates upon closer inspection. And Othoniel's florid description of the piece in the show's photocopied brochure is pure roll-your-eyes hyperbole: "My Bed is a dream-catcher made of melted aluminum and Murano glass. It is a cage-bed where the body is suspended and laid out. The eiderdown of pink felt mousse is stretched out like an indolent animal, surrounded by a seaweed of pale green silk tassels."

Such purple prose is characteristic of the show's overall excesses. And yet the exhibition has been put together with such care and attention to detail that it's easy to be tricked into believing the emperor is fully clothed, at least initially. When I rounded that corner from the entry corridor into the main gallery, I had the sense, momentarily, that otherworldly wonders lay ahead.

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.

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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