Josiah McElheny: Like a Dream of Something Better

This year ICA is playing host to some of the University of Pennsylvania’s Fine Arts lectures, which means that on Thursday nights you’ll often find an artist in our auditorium, talking about his or her work to an audience made up largely of art students—that is, aspiring artists. Recently, listening to one of these talks by Josiah McElheny, whose glass sculptures mapping the development of the cosmos I have admired in photographs, I was reminded how all artists are aspiring artists—makers who learn to live with failure much of the time.
Miranda: McElheny

Courtesy of Andrea Rosen Gallery, New York

McElheny—a very successful artist who has shown all over the world and is a MacArthur “Genius” Fellow as well—started out by showing us a film clip from a recent project, an adaptation of The First Light Club of Batavia, a Ladies’ Novelette, by visionary German novelist Paul Scheerbart (1863–1915). This book tells the story of a quixotic group that builds a spa in an abandoned mine far underground and outfits it with electricity so they can bathe luxuriously in light. The clip, which lasted perhaps ten minutes, featured voices reading the translated text while colors unfurled and flickered down the screen in an endless array, shapes and shadows suggesting themselves, light brightening gradually and then dimming again, patterns slowly repeating. After a while you stopped expecting the shapes to resolve into anything, and the endless unspooling started to connect up to the description of the mine shaft in the story. I fell into the reverie of it.

Afterwards McElheny said, “I showed the same clip at Cooper Union, and people laughed quite a lot. But here, no one laughed. In Berlin when I showed it, in private people laughed, but in public no one did.” Then he said, “I’m trying to understand who I am, who we are, and what the role of aesthetics is.”

He talked about Austrian architect Adolph Loos and his influential 1908 essay, “Ornament and Crime.” He talked about modernism, and visions of utopias, and the American Bar in Vienna which Loos designed and which is filled with mirrors (“the coolest bar ever!”), and about his own project to make a reproduction of the interior of that bar only entirely in white. The concept, he said, was to take the idea of reducing ornament to an extreme by eliminating color as well. He showed a lot of fabulous images, and every now and then he said something that struck me like a knife striking crystal.
Miranda: McElheny

McElheny”s ghostly white American Bar barware as shown in lecture presentation. Photo: D. Cohen

For example, McElheny talked about his struggle to expand and interrogate his own aesthetic, which I take to mean trying to open the mind to work that isn’t intuitively appealing, an admirable contrast to the increasing narrow-mindedness most of us acquire over time. He talked openly about the disappointment he sometimes feels in his work—with the way it comes out, or how it ends up looking in an exhibition. He talked about “trying to make something that looks beautiful but turns out not to be,” which he joked was the opposite of what most twentieth century artists have tried to do. Only actually I guess it wasn’t a joke.

He told us how sometimes the work seemed to end up making a point that was exactly the opposite of what he intended—and I can see how that must be a frustrating experience, but on the other hand, isn’t it also wonderful? Doesn’t it mean that the work is alive, not subject to its maker’s control but with its own instincts and agency? I can imagine God having just the same complaint about Adam and Eve in the Garden.

I loved hearing McElheny talk about the time he spent in Europe as a young man, trying to learn about glass. “I learned that the factory was a hard place”, he said, speaking of the center of one of the towns where he washed up. This made me think that there were stories lurking in the shadows of that remark, darknesses traversed and endured in the pursuit of light. And as he went on speaking—about light and dark and color and crystals—the louder the moral overtones of his undertaking rang out, and the clearer became his utopian vision, his interest in “making worlds better than worlds that exist.”

“It’s so hard to see glass!” McElheny said, and I thought he was lamenting. But when he went on, “It can be like a dream of something better, because you can’t see what it is,” I understood he was, on the contrary, exulting.

You can see artists talk about their work many Thursday nights at ICA. Coming up: Michelle Grabner (March 31).