Chihuly at Phipps: Gardens and Glass, the collection of works by Dale Chihuly on view at Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, is impossible to define as Chihuly's exhibition. That's no slight to the world-famous sculptor, but rather, bears witness to his unrivalled facility for generating work that not only complements and enhances the natural world, but that is absorbed into it seamlessly.
Primarily erupting in fusion with the astounding botanical offerings that have long secured Phipps' position as a world-class repository of world-wide vegetation, Chihuly's highly popular creations seem to grow not from the imagination of man, but from sprout and seed. These works don't loom side-by-side with nature, in attempts to reflect it; they subsist with it as one.
In Phipps' lobby hangs an amazing Chihuly chandelier -- but, while awesome, it's displayed amidst walls, windows and staircase, and isn't imbued with the organic life that enriches the later pieces. The symbiosis of glass and garden is truly established in the Palm Court, where a spectacular 15-foot tower of cobalt and chartreuse tendrils is alive with vibration and movement, part creeping vine and part Medusan snake. The partnership continues throughout the conservatory; there's barely a waving leaf or exploding blossom that hasn't met its match.
Almost without exception, every fragment Chihuly has set in Phipps' earth is effective, striking and a glorification of the beauty that already flourishes within these walls. Cattails and reeds in fluorescent hues hold their own beside their counterparts; spiky fronds in primary brights reach triumphantly toward the sky visible through glass roofs; tentacles interbreed land and sea to birth eely stems writhing around bark.
Here and there, Chihuly's contrivances do co-exist with their surroundings instead of melting into them. In "Float Boat," in the South Conservatory, effervescent spherical forms spill over a rowboat to rest on still, and seemingly bottomless, water. The spheres range from brilliant globes that could easily be cradled in a gentle hand to murky ovoids that Atlas' shoulders would bow beneath. The vessel brims with its endless wellspring of rainbowed pearls while the water buoys only scattered runaways. Yet the scene suggests not that the ship has transported its cargo across the sea -- yeah, OK, it's a shallow cement pond inside a building, but it feels like the sea -- but rather that the bubbles have surged from the depths to commandeer the craft.
In the heart of the Outdoor Garden sits "Rose Crystal Tower." It's a column of incandescent pink shards and cubes that beanstalks to the sun and shimmers under its light, evoking a jewel bursting from stone, or perhaps a great big hunk of rock candy. Either way, it's luminous and joyful. Chihuly offers not only the flora but the fauna as well, with "Yellow Herons" in the Outdoor Garden and "Blue Herons" in the Japanese Courtyard Garden -- avian shapes lit upon the ground but ready to resume flight at any second.
Back inside, the "Desert Gold Star" nestles amidst bristly cacti and barbed succulents without a snag. The "Macchia Forest" introduces you to colors you didn't know existed, and the "Fiori Sun" supernovas into a pristine galaxy.
For Phipps to host this collection, previously seen in only a handful of other cities, is an honor and a privilege. Still, it only makes sense -- these pieces fit so precisely and perfectly into the context within which they're presented that it's difficult to imagine that they weren't fashioned specifically for this venue. The two parts here joined constitute a magical, fantastic and irresistible new whole.
Chihuly at Phipps: Gardens and Glass continues through Nov. 11. Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, Oakland. Reservations required: 1-888-336-4060 or www.phippsconservatory.org