Josiah McElheny has never been content with his widely acknowledged status as a master craftsman in the medium of glass. His approach has been consistently that of an experimental sculptor and installation artist. In “Josiah McElheny: Paintings,” he pushes the glass medium into yet another, perhaps even more adventurous realm. In the 11 wall reliefs, two photograms and two video works featured in the exhibition (all works 2015), McElheny uses glass in various ways to address painterly concerns. Here, he explores issues of positive and negative space, focuses on nuances of surface texture and produces visual tension by means of ostensibly simple, seemingly abstract shapes.
From a distance, Crystalline Prism Painting VI, approximately 25 by 33 inches, resembles a rather conventional nonobjective painting, in which an arrangement of eight squares of varying sizes, in white, blue, red and yellow, is set against a stark monochrome black ground. The work’s black-framed shadow box extends six inches off the wall. On close inspection, the glimmering squares prove to be prismatic, cast-glass crystals, several inches deep, inlaid flush with the black-painted surface.
McElheny bases the wall reliefs throughout the show on visionary paintings by early modernist abstractionists, such as Malevich, Kandinsky and especially Hilma af Klint. Perhaps most clearly tied to his previous efforts are the works he calls “Blue Prism Paintings.” In these pieces, blue glass objects line shelves in shadow boxes backed with mirrors and fronted with blue-tinted glass. The three shelves in Blue Prism Painting VI, for instance, hold 11 slightly rotund solid-glass objects that resemble small Brancusi sculptures. McElheny has mentioned that the abstract forms in the “Blue Prism Paintings” relate to those in certain af Klint paintings but that the series as a whole was inspired by Ad Reinhardt’s work. One of the most stunning pieces on view, the gray-and-black-toned Window Painting I, in which two solid glass cylinders are placed on a narrow shelf, is meant to pay homage to Ellsworth Kelly in its simple shapes and palette.
McElheny skews the definition of painting further in the two video works, in which filmed images flicker against sculptural “screens” whose faceted surfaces are covered in painted glass. Albert Oehlen’s projection paintings were the inspiration for McElheny’s Projection Painting I, which features indiscernible black-and-white images pulsating atop the projection surface. Similarly elusive figurative images in Projection II allude to the work of surrealist film pioneer Maya Deren.
McElheny brings together a range of art historical references in his new works, but his attitude is not didactic or academic. A playful quality to his “paintings” complements their conceptual and technical rigor. Ultimately, the transcendental quality that McElheny explores in the abstract work of his artistic forebears becomes a key attribute of his endeavor.