REFLECTIONS FROM THE DIRECTOR
Some Pictures of the Infinite
ON VIEW THROUGH OCTOBER 14, 2012
BY JILL MEDVEDOW
ELLEN MATILDA POSS DIRECTOR
When visiting the exhibition Josiah McElheny: Some Pictures of the Infinite, it is critical to begin at the beginning. There, fragile, handblown glass plates, jars, and goblets fill the first gallery. Though made by McElheny in the 1990s, they conjure scenes of familiarity and intimacy from earlier times: carefully prepared delicacies served on fine Venetian plates, vials of tears captured from mourners, and loving cups chained together to commemorate a marriage. Through meticulous copies of antique domestic artifacts, McElheny invites the museum visitor into private personal moments, placing artistic creation and individual interaction at the center of the experience.
Later in the exhibition, specific human activity is less apparent, less specific. In Czech Modernism—part of the ICA’s collection and the standout work in the next gallery—a shallow vitrine contains eight lidded, mirrored, handblown decanters. As the case is lined with mirrors, the vessels appear to recede and repeat infinitely: dazzling with their technical virtuosity, seductive in their sleekness, referential to the great Modernist design of the last century, and hypnotic in their obsessive repetition…and yet, nowhere is there a human reflection. Instead, as Sebastian Smee describes it in his review of the show, “The vessels seem to recede infinitely, in a nightmare of replication. The result is an alluringly shiny but terrifying vision, from which you may not want to avert your eyes.” (The Boston Globe, June 22, 2012)
Similarly terrifying is the infinite repetition in Three Screens for Looking at Abstraction. Kaleidoscopic, hallucinogenic, exploding images of one’s own shadow are incorporated into the angled screens filled with abstract cinema. Endlessly extending above and below, it is impossible to escape your image and stay and look.
With the final glorious explosion of metal and glass in the last gallery, Island Universe returns a recognizable human image in the mirrored orbs of the low-hanging, chandelier-like structures. Here, we appear small and distant, a more accurate representation of our infinitely infinitesimal place in the cosmos. Inspired by both the Lobmeyr chandeliers of the Metropolitan Opera, Sputnik, and the Big Bang theory, these five major works represent time and space through metal rods, and handblown glass discs and bulbs. Though frozen in space in the museum setting, they illustrate the ideas of constant change in the cosmos and the multiverse theory that describes the possibility of many universes, despite the familiar comfort that we on earth are the one and only.
In Pictures of the Infinite, McElheny constructs a variety of artworks where human presence and absence are included through reflection, reference, refraction, or, in the case of Czech Modernism, exclusion. Artist Gerhard Richter has said, “Art and beauty are the preserves of hope in the face of an often hard to bear reality…[Beauty is] the opposite of destruction, disintegration, and damage…we need beauty in all its variations.”1
This then, I believe to be the hope and aspiration of Josiah McElheny: finding a place of meaning and beauty, albeit terrifying, for human beings in the multiverse. For when all is said and done, McElheny creates art for human interaction and without our presence, their meaning is lost.
1A. Borchardt-Hume, Dreh Dich Nicht Um: Don’t Turn Around. Richter’s Paintings of the Late 1980s, Gerhard Richter: Panorama, exh. cat., Tate Modern, London, 2011, p.174.