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Otherworldly Objects 

Interpreting art can be a risky business. While some art is fairly obvious, sometimes you have to be a sleuth. Of course, art is supposed to be personal; what it means is whatever it means to you. Yet, there is always the artist's intent to consider, which isn't always easy since they can be notoriously devious. And then the viewer always brings his or her own baggage to bear, so there may be some reconciling to be done, a tricky two-step to be sure.

Although Jennifer Odem's oddly rounded mounds at Marguerite Oestreicher only peripherally suggested breasts, the thought arose, anyway. Baggage or intuition? I asked the gallery director, who said it was a reasonable response as her past comments suggested links between women, the landscape and fertility in her work. Hmm. I flashed on those oddly rounded hills in Ireland dedicated to the Celtic goddess Tara. And a quick check of Odem's resume revealed that she had indeed lived, worked and exhibited in the Irish Republic. Well, whuddya-know ... .

Even so, works like Fertile Print: Red, Ochre and Iron -- two rounded mound-like forms plus a kind of mock-funnel cloud rising from a little red mesa -- dare you to decipher them. While the forms evoke the body or the land, their distinctively patterned surfaces suggest the hand of man, or woman. Beyond all that, Odem has also said, "The idea that an object can resonate with the essence of the place where it originates influences my choice of material." The idea of a particular place having an "essence" is both ancient and fascinating, yet one wonders how it fits with her use of hydra stone synthetic rock, or which places her pieces refer to. A native New Orleanian, Odem lives in Tennessee, and her work has been exhibited in Lafayette, Texas and Great Britain.

The others are mostly variants of the above. Terrestrial Matter is a cluster of rounded mounds, each 2 by 3 feet in size, with a metal mesh cylinder at its peak like a stove pipe atop a yurt. Made from earth, lead, salt, fur, lace and screen, they resist most attempts at interpretation, but perhaps not as much as another mound studded with tendrils like pollen-topped pistils, and with an exhaust hose at the base connecting to a lawn sprinkler. Otherworldly, it's like a mating ritual in the lawn-and-garden department of Home Depot. Yes, Odem's stuff is peculiar -- is it mystery or novelty? Hard to say, yet it's an oddly interesting show even if it defies most attempts to explain how or why.

If Odem can be maddeningly opaque, Dale Chihuly at Arthur Roger is far more transparent. Well, actually, translucent -- his elaborate glass concoctions radiate light as a suffuse glow, even as they make no bones about their inspirational origins. Sometimes literally -- his deep sea forms seem to hover like large jellyfish or those gelatinous ocean creatures that emit light from somewhere in their boneless bodies. His big show at the Contemporary Arts Center a while back featured such works almost exclusively, clustered in enough profusion to create a critical mass that could be magically disorienting. Deep-sea life can be surreal, and Chihuly's finely crafted creations possess an ethereal life of their own.

His Arthur Roger show continues in that vein, in works such as his spectacular Carnival Chandelier, a cluster of ethereal glass globs and tentacles like a polychrome convention of sea anemones. There are also some new directions in works that take the form of flowers, fruit and putti -- those little cherubs that infest Italian baroque art. Predictably, Chihuly expands the scale to surreal proportions in works such as Lemon Spotted Putti Venetian, a 37-inch-tall fruit-like concoction with a little gold putti on its stem like a cherubic caterpillar. Once again the craftsmanship is flawless, yet, such works can seem more earthbound, more frou-frou than his sea-inspired stuff. And frou-frou can come perilously close to kitsch -- the Abyss.

Still, Chihuly reflects the aspirations of the old art nouveau movement of a century ago, which resurfaced in the 1960s infatuation with "organic" design, a concept that still resonates today. Any way you cut it, Chihuly's glass is gorgeous. Whether it is sometimes a tad too gorgeous is one of those matters of personal interpretation.

click to enlarge The spectacular Carnival Chandelier continues in the same vein of Dale Chihuly's previous works, possessing an ethereal life all their own.
  • The spectacular Carnival Chandelier continues in the same vein of Dale Chihuly's previous works, possessing an ethereal life all their own.
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