3 June – 27 June 2003
The oeuvre of Josiah McElheny proposes, literally and conceptually, a keen reflection on the essence and limits of artistic creation and the tensions between reconstructing and imagining history; between the fabricated and the appropriated object; the original and the copy; between architecture and the objects it contains; the notion of display and how it affects our viewing of an object. With his earliest glass recollections of objects linked to historical or literary episodes with explanatory texts in museological style, McElheny managed to build a bridge between tradition and modernity while questioning the nature of the artistic object.
Gathering first-hand expertise and knowledge from different cultural quarters of the glass-making industry has assisted McElheny in developing a critical attitude to glassmaking, to work both inside and outside of his chosen idiom. An expert and erudite glassblower himself, he deconstructs the industry not as a moralizing postmodern gesture, but rather for himself in order to inhabit other, more fertile identities that allow him to move freely between different zones of cultural knowledge and bodies of individual knowledge to create new images and expanded meanings for the same world. A true 'master of glass' in terms of his deep understanding of the literal and metaphorical potentials of his medium, he is also an interloper, an extraterritorial, in every sense of the word.
His work with mirrors, for example, has not only involved making objects to be physically apprehended, but equally the history of the mirror as object and the history of reflectivity, and how these interdependent histories have been affected over time by changing technical, aesthetic, philosophical and cultural attitudes. As he succinctly observes: ‘Although mirrors are objects, we don't really perceive them as such; we tend to think of them only in terms of functionality, as reflecting surfaces fused to the wall, but historically, they were objects in themselves, important architectural features, windows onto other worlds. We take the perfection of the mirrored surface for granted now, but the mirror was a very different physical object at different points in history, and the reflection it created always related to how people saw themselves at any given time.'
His earliest work on this subject, The History of Mirrors, from 1998, told the story of the technological development of the mirror, from the polished volcanic obsidian or 'dark glass' to the heavily decorated mirrors of the eighteenth century. This was followed by a work directly inspired by Jorge Luis Borges' poetry and essays on the subject that discusses mirrors in both a Western and an Eastern sense, the former being an image of the self communicated through the science of optics, the latter being the glimpsing of the self in imperfect reflecting materials such as polished stone or wood. Borges' verse reveals that both genres of mirrors and their ‘uninhabitable, impossible space of reflection’ disturb him in that their clarity or distortion show him ‘another Borges’, separate from himself, unattainable. Possible Mirrors (2002) employed yet another scale and rhythm to explore the disturbing place of Borges' perception, where images are formed, arrested and subjected to a process of ever-changing potentiality.
In his exhibition in New York, Theories of Reflection, which made reference to a wide range of historical figures from seventeenth-century polymath Anathasius Kircher to twentieth-century utopian Buckminster Fuller, McElheny spun his investigations of reflectivity into dizzying new sculptural dimensions. Working entirely in blown mirror glass and mirrored displays, he created reflective objects designed to inspire reflection, a rhetorical construct that proposed contemplation as a function of physical effects. Buckminster Fuller's Proposal to Isamu Noguchi for the New Abstraction of Total Reflection materialized the imagined results of Fuller's claim that Noguchi had invented a new shadow-less abstraction of totally reflective objects. (Their original conversation happened in the late 1920s when Noguchi had just returned from apprenticeship with Brancusi, where his job was to polish the sculptures to a reflective level beyond the human eye's ability to perceive); fittingly, McElheny's usual clear conceptual strategies turned into an enthralling visual labyrinth of order and chaos. Continuing his exploration of how ideas become intertwined, informed and extended by their form in materiality in a large-scale work, Model for Total Reflective Abstraction (after Buckminster Fuller and Isamu Noguchi), perhaps the ultimate work of this mirror-glass series, a large floating plane or landscape of mirror provides a base on which sits a landscape, model, or ‘garden’ of McElheny's interpretations of Noguchi's sculptural forms in all materials, all rendered in totally reflective handmade glass. Importantly, the work departs from a true historical anecdote, re-imagining, and thus heightening, the possible consequences of that narrative.