New York

Josiah McElheny

In “Non-Decorative Beautiful Objects,” his first solo show in New York, Josiah McElheny carefully placed his astonishingly elegant blown-glass pieces into the rickety frame of art-historical discourse. All too aware of the relegation of his metier to the status of mere craft, McElheny confronts some of the philosophical and historical sources of aesthetic distinction, and, in his modest fashion, blows them away.

The show comprised five mini-installations or projects, each of which elaborated on a real or invented scenario laid out in an accompanying text. In Verzelini’s Acts of Faith, 1996, for example, McElheny put thirty-seven delicately blown-glass objects into the kind of wall-mounted display case one might find in a historical society or antique store. The text inside the case attributes the works to a certain Giacomo Verzelini, “a Venetian glassblower who worked in Venice, Antwerp, and London.” Each piece is “Verzelini’s” re-creation of chalices and other items depicted in actual medieval and Renaissance paintings of the life of Christ, and the group of pieces, the text continues, “was made not as an exploration of form but as an act of devotion.” The objects allow the viewer to catch myriad art-historical references—to Tintoretto’s Marriage at Cana, for example, depicting the biblical story of Christ turning water into wine, or to Joos van Cleve’s version of the Last Supper. It is as if McElheny, through his venerable alter ego, wanted to trace the history of the relationship of his art to the more elevated art of painting and discern when, precisely, beautiful objects became degraded as “decoration.”

McElheny is more than adept at engaging both sides of the art/text junction. He recognizes language to be as supple and fragile as blown glass (and as potentially dangerous). His prose is witty, astute, and at times deeply felt. When we learn that Verzelini/McElheny’s project is an “act of devotion,” for example, it would be a mistake to dismiss this claim as entirely facetious: there is too much tangible, exhibited evidence to the contrary.

In the project The Search for Infinity, 1997, McElheny examines Renaissance concerns with one-point perspective, addressing the concept of infinity with an engaging earnestness and self-effacement. In this work—a series of glass plates on which he has inscribed elaborate patterns—McElheny uses Renaissance painting techniques to create his own image of what timelessness and endlessness might mean. The resultant pieces are philosophically weighty but as subtle and delicate as a Twombly squiggle. A Tribute to Female Beauty, 1997, explores gender through form; its text informs us that female figurines had traditionally been made almost exclusively by male glass blowers “of great physical bravado” (in whose party McElheny would almost certainly not count himself), and that their works had something of a “lascivious quality” about them—unlike McElheny’s glass piece for A Tribute, an exquisite vase in the form of a Brancusi-like torso. This project deftly raises significant questions about the literal “construction” of gender in the history of artworks, and in so doing, McElheny grapples with the legacy of his medium.

McElheny’s graceful, deeply intelligent work considers where it has come from, and where there is left for it to go. Some artists working in more thoroughly pondered mediums seem to find this process of consideration debilitating; for McElheny, it is a challenge that inspires.

Nico Israel