My Way

Jean-Michel Othoniel’s dreamy exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum

Seeing “Jean-Michel Othoniel: My Way,” an exhibit first put on by the Centre Pompidou and now on display at the Brooklyn Museum, is a bit like standing in a cathedral years after losing your religion. You know there’s more to that pretty glass than meets the eye—some of it rather dark—but you can’t help but take comfort in its beauty and familiarity.

Some of Othoniel’s work, such as the halo-shaped “White Gold Mandorla” necklace, is overtly religiously iconographic, recalling and replacing the sacred body of the absent wearer. Similarly oversized necklaces of Murano glass, which all look to hang without suspension, recur throughout the exhibit. Sometimes, though, they relate to episodes entirely unholy, as is the case with the gorgeous beads that Othoniel once hung from trees in New Orleans, evoking Mardi Gras but also the black victims of lynching.

With the exception of this deliberately chilling duality, the exhibit’s curators seem overly committed to the idea that something haunted lies beneath every candy-colored surface. Othoniel, who appears more thoughtful than tormented (“I am not a prisoner of my work,” he says), might encourage this treatment with his own interest in binaries. For one project, he constructed a giant abacus and then, every day for a year, moved a bead to one side or the other depending on whether he felt happy or unhappy.

Rather than leave the viewer with such clear-cut emotions, Othoniel’s sculptures are meant to transport them to a dreamlike state where time, space, and easily interpretable reactions do not apply. “My Bed,” a life-size retreat complete with a comforter of pink felt, a frame of metal disks, and a canopy of blown glass orbs, will remind them of sleep and sexuality, of princes and princesses. As long as they are engaging with these collective memories in some way, Othoniel, it seems, will be happy. That fairytales were part of everyone’s childhood makes works like “My Bed” and the crown-like covering he designed for a Paris metro station more accessible than those that pay tribute to Jacques Lacan or Comte de Lautréamont.

Another rather high-concept piece is “Precious Stonewall,” a thirteen-foot-tall cube of glass bricks draped with beaded necklaces that was inspired by the Indian building boom. According to the exhibit’s description of the piece, while in New York—and only then?—it’s also about the Stonewall Inn riot of 1969, which was the same year that Judy Garland died. “For Othoniel, the golden wall thus conjures another site of transformation, as well as a yellow brick road leading to a marvelous alternate reality,” we’re told. If you say so, Jean-Michel!

For those of us who, as children, preferred our alternate reality via computer games and entertained sweet fantasies of dying of typhus fever in a pixelated covered wagon à la Oregon Trail, see “The Secret Happy End,” a full-size prairie schooner made ornate with the Othoniel touch.