Technically exquisite, formally complex and visually spectacular, the ambitious works ofJosiah McElheney 89 GL pack a powerful punch that really pays off when viewers take time to absorb the multiple layers of meaning. “I believe if you’re going to ask the public to look at a piece of art and think about what it means, there should be a measurable meaning to it,” he said in a recentBoston Globe interview. “It’s sort of my nuts-and-bolts approach to the complexities of astronomy and cosmology.”
Meaning clearly emanates from the works in Josiah McElheny: Some Pictures of the Infinite, a major show now at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston. Spanning two decades of the RISD alum’s ambitious multimedia oeuvre, it features 21 works of sculpture, installation, film, photography and performance, delving into his fascination with space, time and notions of infinity and purity.
Highlights include the hand-blown plates inCollection of Glass Concerning the Search for Infinity, with intricate helix designs evoking the Renaissance notion of linear perspective while demonstrating the artist’s breathtaking command of glassblowing.Czech Modernism Mirrored and Reflected Infinitely, a mixed-media work in mirrored glass, metal laminate, wood and electric lighting, is a blinding, down-the-rabbit-hole exercise in self-replication, with eight vessels finished in mirrored glass set in a mirrored display case. The gleaming surfaces draw the viewer in, expecting to see his or her own reflection, but instead McElheny has actually created a contained and highly sophisticated world in which the vessels only reflect themselves, in endless repetition.
The ICA Boston show also reflects an incredible diversity of influences, from historical Venetian glass plates to the chandeliers inside New York’s Metropolitan Opera House to theSloan Digital Sky Survey of the cosmos. Mining these sources and working with scientists to ensure the accuracy of his cosmological pieces, he creates highly charged assemblages that explore the very nature of human existence, including the origins of the universe.
“That interest in time is one of the primary reasons glass figures so prominently in my work,” notes the winner of a2006 MacArthur “genius” grant. “Of all the common materials available to artists, glass may be the most malleable, the easiest to change, the most constant… and perhaps most important, the most durable. There are… works of glass that are 3,500 years old and are still intact and as powerful and beautiful as in the beginning.”
While at RISD in the mid-1980s, McElheny studied in Rome through the school’sEuropean Honors Program and worked with master glassblowers such as Ronald Wilkins in London. In 1994 he returned as a visiting artist in theGlass department.
“McElheny’s oeuvre combines the legacy of conceptual art and a keen interest in history with an extremely high proficiency in glass blowing,” notesHelen Molesworth, chief curator at the ICA. It shows “a degree of craftsmanship almost completely outmoded in today’s art world.” Equally important, “Josiah tackles the very difficult task of portraying questions in his work. It is an amazing feat that he is able to do so – in his industrial work, in his work that explores historical moments and in his more recent scientific work.”
Since 2004 McElheny has collaborated on four major projects with David H. Weinberg, an astronomy professor at Ohio State University who has helped provide the scientific expertise the artist felt he needed to make his artwork more accurate and meaningful. “Josiah is an incredibly thoughtful person,” Weinberg says. “What makes him unique is that he doesn’t just have a passing interest in science – specifically in astronomy and cosmology. [It’s not] just a lark for him. He gets it. And he wants the public to get it through his art.”Island Universe, a beautiful installation of glass and chrome starburst sculptures suspended from the ceiling, is among the fascinating outcomes of their collaboration included in the ICA show.
“My obsession is with the science, with the art – where we fit,” McElheny has said in interviews. “But my personal beliefs are such that I don’t believe in… a single answer. I think if anyone claims to have the answer – to life, to where we’ve been and where we’re going – they sort of weaken our incentive. The ongoing quest that we all have day to day – the quest we just engage in but don’t necessarily think hard about – is a quest for answers. And the hunt – the pursuit – makes us better people.”
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