Josiah McElheny: Some Pictures of the Infinite

Island Universe, 2008. Handblown and press-molded glass, chrome-plated aluminum, electric lighting, rigging. Dimensions variable; largest element: approx. 12 feet dia.; smallest element: approx. 7 feet dia. Courtesy of the artist and Andrea Rosen Gallery, New York; Donald Young Gallery, Chicago; and White Cube. Photo: Todd-White Art Photography, London.

Josiah McElheny: Some Pictures of the Infinite is the first museum survey of Josiah McElheny’s work. McElheny uses the ancient and labor intensive medium of glass to create objects of exceptional beauty and formal sophistication. An artist of diverse interests, McElheny draws on art history, politics, and astronomy to encode his glassworks with information, turning these exquisite objects into repositories of meaning. A mid-career survey of the artist’s work, Josiah McElheny: Some Pictures of the Infinite traces the artist’s investigations into the representation of time and space, and in particular, the concept of infinity. McElheny’s interest in this subject can be seen in early works that deal with the problem of how to represent archeological time––using glass shards and fragments––up through his most recent explorations of the Big Bang and astronomical time.

“Josiah McElheny’s masterful work, frequently in the form of visually spectacular glass sculptures, explores the objects and aspirations of mid-century modernist design as well as the nature of astronomical time. In Some Pictures of the Infinite, Josiah has drawn inspiration from the enormity of the cosmos and the endless process of change and formation that defines both human existence and the galaxies that surround us—all of this etched in the familiar yet evocative material of glass.”

“McElheny’s oeuvre combines the legacy of conceptual art and a keen interest in history with an extremely high proficiency in glass blowing, a degree of craftsmanship almost completely outmoded in today’s art world,” said Molesworth. “Over the past two decades, the problem of infinity has driven McElheny’s efforts to represent the unrepresentable, as the infinite by definition must always elude stable grasp. Josiah McElheny: Some Pictures of the Infinite examines different images of time—archaeological time, linear and cyclical models, and the overwhelming span of astronomical time—while also reconsidering the relationship between craft and conceptualism in contemporary art.“

In McElheny’s diverse body of work, the infinite crops up again and again. The plates comprising Collection of Glass Concerning the Search for Infinity (1998-2011) exerts a gyroscopic draw, each rhythmically patterned surface spiraling towards a vanishing point located at the center of the object. Modeled after a set of historical Venetian glass plates, McElheney’s work links the glassblower’s exquisitely wrought helixes to the Renaissance development of linear perspective—a means of visualizing infinite distance through mathematical order.

McElheny has repeatedly drawn inspiration from the enormity of the universe, gaining a working knowledge of astronomy through a long-term collaboration with the astronomer David Weinberg. Their partnership has resulted in multiple artworks picturing the origins of the universe, with particular attention to the theory of the Big Bang. A highlight of the exhibition is Island Universe (2008), a spectacular sculptural installation consisting of five, large-scale, chrome and glass sculptures that resemble starbursts. Island Universe arose from McElheny’s infatuation with the Lobmeyr light fixtures at the Metropolitan Opera House—but they are also scientifically accurate models of Big Bang theory, and represent the apotheosis of McElheny’s effort to picture infinity and give an abstract concept materiality and visual form.

The exhibition also showcases a new work by McElheny, never before on view. A Study for “The Center is Everywhere,” (2012) is the latest in a series of works fusing décor and astronomy, formal elegance and conceptual rigor. A suspended sculpture, “The Center is Everywhere” hangs from the ceiling in a glittering column of crystal and brass. The seven-foot-tall sculpture hovers inches off the ground, creating a dynamic relationship between the dangling crystals and the floor below. It was Weinberg who suggested the idea for the sculpture, based on the Sloan Digital Sky Survey’s current efforts to chart the whole of the cosmos, one dime-sized portion at time. Powerful telescopes from a New Mexico observatory focus on a specific patch of sky, and physically record the visible objects by perforating holes in a metal plate. One such disc forms the structural basis of A Study for “The Center is Everywhere,” which abstracts and stylizes actual celestial bodies. Streaming downward from the central disc, the sculpture bursts with information; its hand-cut crystals signifying stars and galaxies while the brass rods tipped with light bulbs represent distant quasars.

The work’s title comes from the philosopher Blaise Pascal’s centuries-old pronouncement that “nature is an infinite sphere, whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.” Equal parts empirical and aesthetic, McElheny’s imaginative approach seduces viewers, couching cutting-edge science into unabashed formal beauty.

Organized by Helen Molesworth, Barbara Lee Chief Curator

The exhibition is on view from June 22 through October 14, 2012
Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston
100 Northern Avenue, Boston, MA 02210

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