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Ifigure that Dale Chihuly has to be a reincarnation of an artisan from the rococo age when opulence and luxury were bywords and the aristocracy ordered up elaborate decorative schemes the way we order Big Macs.

Otherwise, how could this artist with sound training and experience in contemporary aesthetics come up with an art so lavishly at odds with the prevailing art of his own time?

"Dale Chihuly: Installations 1964-1997," at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery through Jan. 4, is not so much a static art exhibition as a kind of fantastic decorative theater, complete with hanging "chandeliers," an ornamented ceiling and a dramatically lighted mock-up for an opera set design accompanied by music ("Opera Set From 'Pelleas and Melisande' " by Debussy).

And remember, we're talking glass here, usually an art confined to the table top. In fact, Chihuly is one of the most acclaimed glass artists of the day. A decade back he more or less single-handedly transformed glass into big-scale art. Before Chihuly came along, glass was a singularly intimate art based on an ancient craft predicated on a delicate balance between the action of the human lungs and one of the Earth's most fragile materials.

He has worked with the famous glassblowers of Murano, learning the intricacies of the Venetian tradition of glassblowing. Indeed, his individual pieces have all the grace and flawless beauty of the finest glass in the world.

But we don't see individual pieces. Or if we manage to, it is by fighting off the theatrical effects of the overrigged lighting and visually plucking out one exquisite formation from a proliferation of similar forms. For Chihuly the single shaped glass is only a component meant to serve the grander purpose of room-size ornamentation.

In as many rooms, the show presents 12 reinstalled works from eight of the artist's past series. Countless individual blown-glass structures are assembled in groups on walls, displayed on high pedestals or gathered in gigantic clusters from the ceiling. "Orange Chandelier With Horns and
Bulbs," to take one example, is a glowing mass of curling forms reminiscent of rams' horns that look as if they've just sprouted from the blazing orange "gourds" that hold them. Chihuly is nothing if not extravagant.

Grandiose ornamention of the sort that Chihuly pursues is nowhere to be found in the lexicon of modern art. In effect, the artist thumbs his nose at the whole pile of cherished beliefs formulated in the early part of the century that still stubbornly cling to contemporary art.

Decoration is decadent? So be it. Let's wallow in it. Theatricality is a cheap trick? Let's crank up the lighting and jazz up the presentation.

This flouting of rules is done with a joyousness bordering on the giddy. Chihuly knows how to put on a good show. Art to him is an entertainment, and he succeeds in this regard. As you wander around the gallery you hear exclamations of "awesome" and all the variants on "ooh and ah" that humans have yet devised.

Chihuly has not a dot of shame about how he manipulates his audience, however. "Persian Pergola" was designed as a surrogate sea spectacle with Disneyesque dimensions. In this flamboyant piece, individual bottle forms, wavy-edged bowls and inverted goblets are coyly arranged across an expanse of false plastic ceiling. This immense spread of glassware, already more than an eyeful, is further amplified by a warm light that floods through from above, transforming the floor into a rippled pattern of color and shape. If sea horses wafted in carrying resplendent beakers, it wouldn't be a surprise.

As the ads for the show say, Chihuly dazzles. But my suspicion is that Chihuly has bedazzled himself. Installations like "Basket Sets" and "Macchia Forest" contain fabulous single objects. But you can't study them. You can't get into the elegance of the form or the subtlety of the color and pattern. Chihuly chooses to bury what he must see as a lesser sort of beauty in stagey spatial ploys and overly dramatic lighting effects.

When he tones down the razzmatazz he can be quite eloquent. "Albright-Knox Art Gallery Persian Wall," designed especially for the gallery space, is a relatively restrained -- even stately -- arrangement of large, anemone-shaped bowls. The precision and subtlety of "Ancestral White Seaform With Lava Lip Wraps," a work in which one flowerlike form seems to dissolve imperceptibly into another, is a moving experience.

But then you have the neon-illuminated "Niijima Floats," so many arty beach balls distributed on a bed of broken glass. With the exception of Chihuly's ridiculous drawings displayed in the same room, this is the most art-pretentious work in the show. It tries to do in glass what more serious installation artists have done directly and powerfully with humble materials.

It doesn't merely dismiss contemporary uses of site and object; it completely misunderstands them. It offers for the real thing a department store window designer's sense of installation.

Art as entertainment isn't inherently bad. We need more than art loaded with significant socially relevant messages. And certainly the dangerous edges of contemporary thought aren't the only territory for fruitful exploration.

But Chihuly misses the best things about his own art. His natural showmanship and flamboyance obscure what would be the most intimate and meaningful characteristics of his glass. His ambition to make glass into a monumental art overwhelms the very source of his talent -- the harmonious single object.

The exhibition was organized in cooperation with the Seattle Art Museum, which launched a big Chihuly exhibition in 1992. Locally, it is sponsored by Fleet Bank. The media sponsor is The Buffalo News.

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