First U.S. museum survey of Josiah McElheny opens at the Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston

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First U.S. museum survey of Josiah McElheny opens at the Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston
Island Universe, 2008. Handblown and press-molded glass, chrome-plated aluminum, electric lighting, rigging. Dimensions variable; largest element: approx. 12 feet in diameter; smallest element: approx. 7 feet in diameter. Photo: Todd-White Art Photography, London. Image courtesy of the artist and Andrea Rosen Gallery, New York; Donald Young Gallery, Chicago; and White Cube. © the artist.

BOSTON, MASS.- This June, the Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston presents the first museum survey of Josiah McElheny. McElheny uses the ancient and labor intensive medium of glass to create objects of exceptional beauty and formal sophistication. An artist of diverse interests, McElheny draws on art history, politics, and astronomy to encode his glassworks with information, turning these exquisite objects into repositories of meaning. A mid-career survey of the artist’s work, Josiah McElheny: Some Pictures of the Infinite traces the artist’s investigations into the representation of time and space, and in particular, the concept of infinity. McElheny’s interest in this subject can be seen in early works that deal with the problem of how to represent archeological time––using glass shards and fragments––up through his most recent explorations of the Big Bang and astronomical time. Organized by Helen Molesworth, the Barbara Lee Chief Curator of the ICA, Josiah McElheny: Some Pictures of the Infinite features 21 works, including sculpture, installation, film, photography, performance and a new large-scale work which will make its debut at the museum. The exhibition is on view from June 22 through October 14, 2012.

“Josiah McElheny’s masterful work, frequently in the form of visually spectacular glass sculptures, explores the objects and aspirations of mid-century modernist design as well as the nature of astronomical time. In Some Pictures of the Infinite, Josiah has drawn inspiration from the enormity of the cosmos and the endless process of change and formation that defines both human existence and the galaxies that surround us—all of this etched in the familiar yet evocative material of glass,” said Jill Medvedow, Ellen Matilda Poss Director of the ICA. "We are grateful and thrilled to collaborate with McElheny on his first U.S. museum survey, and to share his work with our constellation of visitors, students and members.”

“McElheny’s oeuvre combines the legacy of conceptual art and a keen interest in history with an extremely high proficiency in glass blowing, a degree of craftsmanship almost completely outmoded in today’s art world,” said Molesworth. “Over the past two decades, the problem of infinity has driven McElheny’s efforts to represent the unrepresentable, as the infinite by definition must always elude stable grasp. Josiah McElheny: Some Pictures of the Infinite examines different images of time—archaeological time, linear and cyclical models, and the overwhelming span of astronomical time—while also reconsidering the relationship between craft and conceptualism in contemporary art.“

Creatively engaging with the history of ideas, McElheny’s work entwines fact, fantasy, and material richness. As the artist has remarked, “we animate objects through our experience of them, our understandings, misunderstandings, memories, and imaginings. Objects are containers, literally and metaphorically.” This idea emerges clearly in a work such as Theory of Tears (1995), a sculpture consisting of two dozen, empty glass vials arranged in uniform rows within a wooden cabinet. Two identical labels affixed to the cabinet offer differing interpretations as to the vessels’ significance: a 19th-century label claims the bottles were used to collect the tears of mourners, a 20th-century label calls them simply “cosmetic jars.” Finally, the viewer is confronted by a third label, the museum’s own, in which McElheny’s hand in the fabrication of this object is revealed. The vials date to 1995; their emptiness amply vast to contain infinite interpretations.

In McElheny’s diverse body of work, the infinite crops up again and again. The plates comprising Collection of Glass Concerning the Search for Infinity (1998-2011) exerts a gyroscopic draw, each rhythmically patterned surface spiraling towards a vanishing point located at the center of the object. Modeled after a set of historical Venetian glass plates, McElheney’s work links the glassblower’s exquisitely wrought helixes to the Renaissance development of linear perspective—a means of visualizing infinite distance through mathematical order.

Alternately, we witness his concern with infinity in Czech Modernism Mirrored and Reflected Infinitely (2005) via the use of mise en abyme—a technique in which an image contains an identical image of itself in an endless series. Set in a mirrored display case, eight modernist vessels—each carefully handblown and also finished in mirrored glass—self replicate infinitely within their reflective environment. Protracted viewing slowly induces a sense of disquiet, as we realize that our own reflection is not included in the gleaming, lustrous surfaces of the objects before us. Although McElheny often finds aspirational models in the history of 20th-century design, Czech Modernism depicts a dystopian version of modernity, in which things are stripped of their individuality through commodification and endlessly repeated production.

McElheny has repeatedly drawn inspiration from the enormity of the universe, gaining a working knowledge of astronomy through a long-term collaboration with the astronomer David Weinberg. Their partnership has resulted in multiple artworks picturing the origins of the universe, with particular attention to the theory of the Big Bang. A highlight of the exhibition is Island Universe (2008), a spectacular sculptural installation consisting of five, large-scale, chrome and glass sculptures that resemble starbursts. Island Universe arose from McElheny’s infatuation with the Lobmeyr light fixtures at the Metropolitan Opera House—but they are also scientifically accurate models of Big Bang theory, and represent the apotheosis of McElheny's effort to picture infinity and give an abstract concept materiality and visual form.

The exhibition also showcases a new work by McElheny, never before on view. A Study for the Center is Everywhere (2012) is the latest in a series of works fusing décor and astronomy, formal elegance and conceptual rigor. A suspended sculpture, The Center is Everywhere hangs from the ceiling in a glittering column of crystal and brass. The seven-foot-tall sculpture hovers inches off the ground, creating a dynamic relationship between the dangling crystals and the floor below. It was Weinberg who suggested the idea for the sculpture, based on the Sloan Digital Sky Survey’s current efforts to chart the whole of the cosmos, one dime-sized portion at time. Powerful telescopes from a New Mexico observatory focus on a specific patch of sky, and physically record the visible objects by perforating holes in a metal plate. One such disc forms the structural basis of A Study for the Center is Everywhere, which abstracts and stylizes actual celestial bodies. Streaming downward from the central disc, the sculpture bursts with information; its hand-cut crystals signifying stars and galaxies while the brass rods tipped with light bulbs represent distant quasars.

The work’s title comes from the philosopher Blaise Pascal’s centuries-old pronouncement that “nature is an infinite sphere, whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.” Equal parts empirical and aesthetic, McElheny’s imaginative approach seduces viewers, couching cutting-edge science into unabashed formal beauty.

Josiah McElheny was born in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1966, and lives and works in Brooklyn, New York. He received a B.F.A. (1989) from the Rhode Island School of Design and was an apprentice to master glassblowers Jan-Erik Ritzman, Sven-Ake Carlsson, and Lino Tagliapietra. Recipient of a 2006 MacArthur Fellowship, McElheny has had numerous exhibitions at museums in the U.S. and abroad, including the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio, and the Centro Galego de Arte Contemporánea in Santiago de Compostela, Spain. Josiah McElheny: Some Pictures of the Infinite at the Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston is the artist’s first U.S. museum survey.

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