Pity the poor paeonia tenuifolia. It's going to be a tough summer at the Denver Botanic Gardens.
The delicate flower's fern-like leaves don't stand a chance of getting noticed with artist Dale Chihuly's swooping glass ornaments spread about the grounds. No matter how pink or red its bloom, Chihuly's glossy, bulbous blobs will be pinker, redder, showier.
They're both things of beauty, the garden's vast, organic bounty and the artist's hyper-hued baubles on display through November. The question is: How much beauty can you stand?
That depends on whether you see Chihuly's glass sculptures as an enhancement or a distraction for the flora's intrinsic perfection; as a lovely bit of jewelry for Mother Nature or an overload of gaudy lawn ornaments in her front yard. The exhibit leaves plenty of room for debate among the tens of thousands who will wander the urban oasis over the next few months.
For sure, there are less conflicting ways of appreciating the glass master in the region this summer. In addition to the gardens' "Chihuly," there is "Chihuly Rediscovered" at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, and another "Chihuly" at the artist's local commercial gallery, Pismo Fine Art Glass in Cherry Creek North.
A glass lover can only wonder how many hundreds of thousands of dollars in art would be lost were Colorado to suffer an earthquake this season. Or a summer hailstorm.
But each exhibit shows a different side of the man who just might be the best-known artist in America. Chihuly, 72, single-handedly made the world take glass blowing seriously as an art form with his knock-your-socks-off chandeliers, his fragile seashells and birds, his baskets, balls, rods and cones.
With the help of a legion of assistants, he's set up his wares in the canals of Venice, Kew Gardens in London, the Tower of David Museum in Jerusalem. He helped glass find a place in the international art market with his work leading the way. A giant blue chandelier at Pismo is priced at $325,000.
Even if you can't afford that, a trip to the gallery may be your best way to get up close and personal with a sampling of Chihuly's output. It's free and the work is shown to good advantage, spread out, lighted just right. Chihuly has experimented with numerous techniques, and there are good examples, plus some prints and paintings that give a clue to his creative process.
That said, the Colorado Springs show packs the most visual punch. The exhibit takes a local angle with 45 objects from the museum's permanent holdings and another dozen borrowed from Colorado collectors.
The star of the show is the massive "Orange Hornet" chandelier, a 9-foot-tall stunner with 384 individual pieces that the artist redesigned specially for the museum's 2007 expansion. There's also the "Persian Wall," a phalanx of golden-brown crustaceans mounted as a set. There are the brilliant "Macchia Forests," groupings of decorative pots, red on the outside, yellow on the inside, or blue or purple or green. They're the most saturated objects Chihuly ever made, and they glow like lava.
Still, neither the museum nor the gallery show come close to the scope of the Botanic Gardens extravaganza. The works abound for acres. They're dropped in fields and floated in ponds, and many are brand new.
This is a superstar effort, and a journey through it begins with all the whiz and bang Chihuly is beloved for. Visitors are greeted right away with "Blue Icicle Towers," a 2014 piece that explodes off a pedestal into shimmering shards of aqua and navy. Just a few steps down the path they encounter "Summer Sun," from 2010, a sphere of fiery, orange tentacles propped on a singular column.
But from there, the show changes character, as the garden begins integrating the pieces with the plants and fountains, and this is the point where some visitors might find it a bit aggressive.
There's Chihuly's "Perennial Fiori," a series of striped candy canes set in a bed of bearded irises and squat junipers. There's his "Monet Pool Fiori" with lavender reeds popping up from a pond, and his "Red Reeds" shooting through a field of prairie grass. There's a pink-and-white, frilly geyser rising from a cistern, blue Chihuly herons stopping for a drink amid the aquatic grass.
The pieces range from striking to excessive to outright kitsch, as we get Chihuly ice cubes as big bed pillows and basketball-sized Chihuly bubbles floating in waterways. It devolves into Chihuly by the boatloads, literally, as rowboats are piled with a cargo of rainbow-colored Chihuly balls, a foot in diameter, that are set adrift amidst the garden's lily pads.
How much is too much? That's hard to say with Chihuly, a master of the big, bold expression. But those same overabundant qualities that make Chihuly such a thrill at the Pismo gallery and the Fine Arts Center can feel egotistical and competitive in the garden.
The Denver Botanic Gardens has had success in past years incorporating art into the grounds. In 2007 it presented "Chapungu," 60 stone sculptures from contemporary Zimbabwean artists. A follow-up exhibit of large-scale Henry Moore bronzes was one of the best shows of 2010 on the entire Front Range.
Those exhibits featured humble, figurative objects and made graceful connections between the garden and its human visitors. The art and the hyssop and plum trees got along well.
It's hard to say why the garden would let an invasive species like Chihuly take over so completely. Why put fake flowers next to real ones? It's tempting to connect it to the number of tickets it will sell, offering quick thrills over that thoughtful throughline that can make art and nature copacetic.
It's tempting, too, to tie it into the other thing you can't help but notice: The construction projects that are putting buildings in a community garden where greenery might be a better option. The cafe, the learning pyramid, the research center feel as unnecessary and intrusive as Chihuly's hundredth electric blue balloon.
It's all competition for the plants and flowers and disruptive to the paradise so many of us run to when we need to escape the urban clutter.
For the poor paeonia tenuifolia, and many others who live in Denver, it's going to be a tough summer.
Ray Mark Rinaldi: 303-954-1540, firstname.lastname@example.org or twitter.com/rayrinaldi
Three chihuly glass exhibits
"Chihuly," an outdoor exhibit, runs through Nov. 30 at the Denver Botanic Gardens, 1007 York St. 720-865-3500 or botanicgardens.org. $12.50 for adults.
"Chihuly Rediscovered," an indoor exhibition drawn from Colorado collections, continues through Sept. 28 at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, 30 W. Dale St., Colorado Springs. 719-634-5583 or csfineartscenter.org. $20 for adults.
"Chihuly," a commercial gallery show, runs through Aug. 10 at Pismo Fine Art Glass, 2770 E. Second Ave., in Cherry Creek North. 303-333-2879 or pismoglass.com. Free.