By JONATHAN GOODMAN December 19, 2023
Josiah McElheny, now in midlife, resides with his family and works in Brooklyn. For two decades, he has been a dominant figure in American glass, often incorporating historical and conceptual motifs in his work, as well as, more specifically, literature and science. This show has been given an abstract title, typical for the artist: “Geometries for an Abstract Future,” which supports the highly non-objective nature of his creativity. Usually, the works are a stunning combination of traditional skills and modernist influence. Often, we meet with rounded, opaque globes of glass, sometimes presented in groups. In this particular show, more than a few of the pieces consist of black sheets of paper for a background, with luminous, bright white spheres, actually more oval than round, resting on the oval shapes, sometimes going into the depth of the paper for the extension of an inch. These oval shapes, not truly circles, look a good deal like the face of a light–a bulb without accoutrements. Here, we can clearly see the contrast between a flat black background and a rounded white oval. The contrast is striking, creating a difference in tonal value that is generated out of opposites. Black and white, which can be considered the most vivid differences in tone we can think of, is an artist's dialectic for a memorable visual event. McElheny has brilliantly used such contrasts since the early part of his career.
The black sheets with glowing ovals dominate the show and are remarkably beautiful. But they tend slightly to emphasize design, given their simplicity. One work from 2023, Prismatic Refractive Geometry !, contains a long, fairly wide box framed by blond wood. The container, with a depth of approximately twenty inches, contained small, hand-made forms of cut and polished glass, with a resemblance to quartz or other straight-line stone forms. They are quite small in dimension. Overall, the construction is very strong, being nearly architectural in its alignment of precise, geometric forms.
The artist's unusual skills are well known. But there is something else in this wonderful show: a metaphorical turn of thought one might have thought difficult to achieve given the hard, reflective nature of glass. Glass, regularly a transparent material, can take on symbolic properties, so that McElheny's luminescent spheres manage to suggest and reject light, its refraction, and even opacity in the same moment.
The Double Centered World (2023) also makes use of a flat black background, with an ellipsoid piece of glass taking over the upper right. A straight, white, and thin horizontal line crosses just underneath the glass. As a work combining elements of painting and sculpture within a painterly field, this piece, like most everything McElheny does, stands out for its elegance, its ties to later modernism, and its sharp sense of composition.
McElheny produced several hand-formed glass shapes, raised by a transparent glass cone shape that lift the glass blooms some six inches. The shapes at the top, both flat and rounded, consist of panes joined to each at different angles, making the sphere-like orbs more geometric than actually circular. Set in a row of five, they look a good deal like artificial flowers. The awkwardness of their shape and the deliberately simple nature of their placement in simple rows adds to the sense that even mechanically made objects can take on lyrical highlights–this perception is the key to McElheny’s creativity - industry turns poetic in his hands.
In mid-career, McElheny is, in this striking show, at the top of his achievement, but then he began from a very high place. Glass, traditionally a decorative medium, becomes, in the artist's hands, much more than that. The work possesses philosophical and even cosmological implications, in which a dark sky is lit by light in various forms. The variety of work we come across in this show presents a message-namely, that good art, a matter of creative invention, leads to inspired form-especially when the materials are as forthcoming as the imagination shaping them. WM
Jonathan Goodman is a writer in New York who has written for Artcritical, Artery and the Brooklyn Rail among other publications.
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