Metamorphic Perspectives in Josiah McElheny's The Crystal Land at White Cube
Within their Bermondsey gallery, White Cube is currently exhibiting works by Josiah McElheny (Boston USA, 1966) narrating the last decade of McElheny’s ongoing exploration of alternative histories of modernism and the politics of aesthetics. Titled The Crystal Land, the exhibition presents a series of installations, paintings, photograms, posters and video work that embody McElheny’s continued examination of the process of ‘reconstructing history’.
Crystal Landscape and Anti-Vortex
The exhibition is divided into three distinct sections, and within each the work has been inspired by a specific individual and their practice. The first of which being the artist Robert Smithson and his lesser known works produced between 1964-66, most notably his plexiglass ‘paintings’ that proposed an antagonistic response to the prevailing modernist reductionary philosophy of painting as self-referential surface. McElheny has produced a homage to Smithson’s work in the form of extraterrestrial wall reliefs, composed of painted metal, glass and mirrors. The composition of these works, titled Crystal Landscape Paintings, creates illuminated chambers within which sit a series of oval glass forms infused with delicate linear patterns through light and texture.
Alongside these ‘paintings’ are McElheny’s series of Anti-Vortex Drawings, which consist of two compositional forms: firstly, a series of square box frames with fractured mirrors within which lines float and contort the reflection within the vortex. Secondly, a group of gelatin photograms depicting drawings of new crystalline structures are presented in tandem, positioned on block black backgrounds. Across these series of works, McElheny creates in physical form a warping, evolving zone of illusion contradictorily contained within robust material framing – be it the steel structure of the Crystal Landscape Paintings or the frames of the Anti-Vortex drawings and box structures. To a certain degree, the works are a pictorial representation of the mental act of cognitive reasoning, with the erratic and nuanced internal aspects, ultimately restrained by an external boundary (the limits of our own knowledge).
The Light Club of Vizcaya: A Women’s Picture
McElheny’s second chapter within The Crystal Land moves into a re-examination of modernism through image and language perceived through a lens of gender, sexuality, queerness and society. Centered on his video work, The Light Club of Vizcaya: A Women’s Picture (2012), the thirty-minute long video is composed in a mixture of monochromatic and colour stills and video. The monochrome stills and grainy video footage, drained of colour yet retaining the effervescent vibrancy of the characters within, both contrasts and compliments the geometric designs of the boldly coloured glass encasing the ‘cinema’. The effect is similar to the dreamlike, almost gothic, imagery in the corresponding posters outside, presenting a world subverted and ultimately removed from reality.
The film repurposes the German author Paul Scheerbart’s fantastical tale, The Light Club of Batavia: A Ladies’ Novelette (1912), about a group of socialites in Batavia (present day Jakarta) who decide to create a spa at the bottom of a mineshaft with the ambition of ‘bathing’ in the light. McElheny has correlated this narrative with the history of the location of Vizcaya, a faux-venetian palace originally built by American industrialist James Deering in Miami in 1916 of which the inhabitants were chiefly gay. The film describes how the inhabitants of Vizcaya would hold large parties for gay and queer people, creating an oasis in early 20th century Miami. Interspersed with this are excerpts from Scheerbart’s novella, work by feminist writer Lucie Irigaray and diary entries of the narrator’s great-great-aunt, Mattie Edwards Hewitt. Hewitt, along with her girlfriend Francis Benjamin Johnson, was a renowned photographer at the time and who photographed and frequented Vizcaya. The work presents McElheny’s attempt to comprehend why the historical and fictional characters in both Vizcaya and Batavia create ‘enlightened’ spaces, hidden and removed from the public sphere, both literally and metaphorically. In this regard, ultimately, the piece explores the inherent fragility within modernist utopian ideals.
In the final part of the exhibition, McElheny presents five large-scale suspended sculptures reflecting cosmological inflation and the theory of the exponential expansion of space. Titled Island Universe (2008), the piece is inspired by the work on inflation in the early universe by theoretical physicist Andrei Linde. The cross-disciplinary work is a collaboration between McElheny and the astronomer David H. Weinberg: a dexterous fusion of art, science, and materiality versus the infinite. Building upon their initial work together that produced An End to Modernity (2005), in Island Universe, McElheny and Weinberg have expanded the concept to five chrome-plated aluminum and glass spherical sculptures to represent different hypothetical models for the multiverse: heliocentric, directional structure, frozen structure small scale violence and late emergence. Each structure is composed of a central aluminum sphere with rods radiating from its center each adorned with unique hand formed glass-discs or globes representing galaxies, or lights representing quasars. As the viewer moves around the works their reflections perpetuate a consciousness of uniqueness, a work that’s surface radiates perpetual flux, mirroring the diversity of matter literally and thematically.
The Crystal Land essentially presents a compacted overview of McElheny’s practice that, while demonstrating the stark diversity of his material and aesthetic approach, coherently displays his thematic preoccupations with re-examining historical events and consciousness’ through their limitless interpretations. In this respect, the spinal vision of the exhibition is a meditation on transformation in narrative, history and perspective with each of us emanating uniquely subjective interpretations, rendering us isolated atoms within a cosmos.
Featured image: Josiah McElheny – The Crystal Land, White Cube Bermondsey, 1 March – 13 April 2017. Installation shots. © Josiah McElheny. Photo © the artists and White Cube (George Darrell).