Santiago de Compostela

Josiah McElheny

Centro Galego de Arte Contemporanea

In Jorge Luis Borges’s “Los espejos velados” (Covered mirrors), the narrator (named Borges) tells of a former lover who had to veil all the mirrors in her room because every time she looked for her own face in the glass she would see his “usurping” image. The story resonates powerfully with Josiah McElheny’s conceptually infused blown-glass art, and not only because one of the newer works he showed during his first major museum exhibition in Europe was called Four Veiled Mirrors after a Fiction by Borges, 2001. When McElheny reflects on the objects he breathes into being, fiction intrudes, usurping an unmediated, phenomenological experience of those objects and redirecting their meanings. McElheny’s art explores the hidden space between the mirror and the veil.

Imbued with quirky personality, McElheny’s work is based on a thoroughgoing archaeological investigation of glass in its relation to art history and to histories in general. Sometimes his references are real, sometimes imaginary. The viewer’s task, as with the reader of Borges, is not to distinguish truth from fiction, but to recognize the mirrored reflection of the one in the other. In Recreating a Miraculous Object, 1997-99, McElheny presents a black-and-white reproduction of a sixteenth-century fresco depicting the story of the “miracle of the cup” and, next to it, displays a newly made cup in the style of that time. An accompanying text describes the miracle, associated with Saint Anthony of Padua: When a glass cup fell from the great height of a bell tower, it not only survived the fall but broke the pavement below. Reanimating the vessel shown in the fresco, McElheny subtly asks whether an object could ever affect contemporary Me in a similarly miraculous way.

Against such faith stand the miracles of science; charts, graphs, glass cabinets, and other forms of classification (and pseudo-classification) are an important part of McElheny’s project. In Impurities, 1994, beside a long horizontal display showing how similar glass objects obtain different “impure” qualities based on the local composition of the sand from which they are created, there is a map of Europe and the Mediterranean, with little symbols illustrating different varieties of glass objects produced in the first through seventh centuries. A legend extends the lesson back a few centuries: When glass blowing was first invented in Egypt or Phoenicia, we are informed, it was mainly used to imitate precious stones; only in Renaissance Italy did clear glass become desirable or possible. Are these histories genuine tracings of the development of McElheny’s chosen medium, or Borgesian canards as fake as a glass diamond? As McElheny makes crystal clear, that question pivots on the relation between knowledge and power, fragmentation and totality.

McElheny’s recent projects address the legacy of modernism, from Adolf Loos’s anti-ornamental sceeds of the early twentieth century (to which McElheny responds with Adolf Loos, 2001, a group of exquisite white glass objects shown in rectangular all-white vitrines) to reproductions of colorful “feminine-shaped” works by the glass design company Venini, which in the ’50s had sought to engage with haute couture. As with his earlier works, re-creating glass pieces pictured in masterpieces of European painting, McElheny traces the migration of his craft to the margins of sanctioned art. Curated by Michael Tarantino, the exhibition seemed especially apt for this Galician city, Catholic Europe’s second most important pilgrimage site, named for the apostle James, whose bones are said to rest here. McElheny’s art tests our ability to believe in the legendary. In its own inspired way it reflects an act of faith.

Nico Israel