Context is Key: Josiah McElheny at Andrea Rosen
Josiah McElheny: Thoughts about the Abstract Body at Andrea Rosen Gallery
May 19 to June 30, 2012
525 West 24th Streeet, between 10th and 11th avenues
New York City, 212-627-6000
Josiah McElheny, a wizard at merging conceptual art with high craft, has consistently looked to historical contexts in a variety of fields to shore up and expand his beautifully made glass containers. In his current show at Andrea Rosen, he has built human-height vitrines to present his assemblages of glass sculptures created in response to a wide variety of artists, modernist heroes such as Popova, Fontana, and Schlemmer among them. Everything about the exhibition is keyed to its contextualization, which adds a distinct layer of complexity to the works in the wood-and-glass boxes. The show, entitled “Some thoughts about the abstract body,” relates to the way clothing and costume design have been abstracted, transforming the person into an abstract entity as much as possible. McElheny has come up with variants on this idea, enclosing within eye-level vitrines and glass sculptures that respond subtly to the inspiration of the artists named in each work’s title. According to press materials, the general idea of experiencing abstraction through the medium of the body might result in a dialogue about the original intentions of those committed to such a transformation.
But the problem, as has happened before in McElheny’s art, is that sometimes the context seems so removed from the actual art that it fails to elucidate the artist’s strategies and motivation. Clearly, McElheny is a master artist, someone capable of creating most anything in glass. Yet the relations of his conceptual bias to his artworks are sometimes obscure. For the less historically minded among us, the artist has produced a marvelous show whose impulses have to do with form rather than the history of design. But, even so, the subtle changes from one glass work to the next depend upon the conceptual frame with which the artist has formed his undertaking. Maybe McElheny’s art is best understood as possessing levels of accessibility, in which one may experience the design as forming a ladder of ascending intellectual difficulty. If we look at the vitrine entitled Models for an abstract body (after Delaunay and Malevich) (2012), we see an upright construction with an austere steel pedestal supporting a box made of wood and glass. Within the box are two examples of hand-blown and carved glass, ostensibly created in response to the works of the two artists mentioned. The two shapes, one rather cone-like and the other molded in an hourglass form, are stunningly beautiful. Still, it is hard to gauge just how the glass forms adapt to the art history brought to bear on their construction.
This is not to question the genuine achievement of McElheny’s projects, generally speaking and including this one. It is just to say that like any good works, McElheny’s art can be understood on different levels. The level of craftsmanship is remarkably achieved, with black and brown vertical striations creating moire patterns that delight prolonged study of the glass. One box is particularly attractive—the one containing works influenced by Delaunay, Rodchenko, and Vialov. Here the vaselike forms, given dark vertical stripes, demonstrate a gracefulness and sophistication that places them in the highest reaches of design and art—and this would be true even if they were not related to the art of historical artists. All in all, it seems the complexity of McElheny’s historical understanding of the abstract body works in two directions: pulling his art back, toward the legacy of modernism; and pushing it forward, toward a statement unified by its context, which enables the artist to do whatever comes next in his imagination. The artist even has some wearable art: life-size, mirrored, vertically oriented rectangles anyone can wear with the help of straps attached to the inside of the art. McElheny’s notions of modernity and democracy in art are put to good use in his sculptures, and now we have a fine show to consider his ideas.