For the inaugural exhibition at its new space in Tribeca, James Cohan Gallery has presented Josiah McElheny’s Observations at Night. Long known as an adventurous and visionary glass artist, doing unprecedented things with the protean material and suffusing it with all sorts of driving ideas, his art extends into other mediums, including paintings, which are prominently featured here.
What is most fascinating about McElheny’s exhibition, in addition to the formal brilliance and flat out gorgeousness of his works (all 2019), is how they function as concrete manifestations of twilight and nocturnal consciousness, when the mind is free to be sinuous and fluxional, speculative and dreamy. In this hyper-opinionated era, full of shrill certainties and warring ideologies, fierce facts and intractable positions, McElheny’s orientation is especially welcome.
There is a great deal of poetry in McElheny’s show. “Three Twilight Labyrinths,” the first work one encounters, is a conflation of sculpture and still life painting. Three illuminated, mirrored cases are installed like paintings, but are actually displays that go into the wall, forming what McElheny calls “architectural interventions.” They contain silvery, mercury-like stoppered glass bottles. The bottles are highly reflective and resplendent, and they are further reflected by labyrinthine mirrors in the cases. The tripartite work has a twilight shimmer, suggesting the clarity of daylight just shading into dusk, while their blue-and-black frames signal night coming on. In this in-between time visual magic happens and the echoing vessels are breathtaking.
“Observatories at Night,” in the second room, is a human-scale elliptical sculpture, made of — and here I’ll quote the checklist’s precise description — “hand-formed cut and polished blue glass, bent blue architectural sheet glass, blue mirror, oak, blue dye, and stain.”
It looks like an eccentric display case, a minimalist sculpture, a bit like a large telescope pointing up, and an oddly geometric section of the late twilight sky — the ethereal and boundless concentrated into the finite and physical. Inside the semitransparent blue case, on a mirrored shelf, are darker blue bottles and other vessels of different sizes and shapes. These objects were not intended to be functional. They have a quiet grandeur.
Quite a number of observatories in far-flung places — for instance, on a mountain ridge in Hawaii or high on a Chilean mountaintop — have upright shapes loosely similar to those of McElheny’s objects. His deep blue vessels, in their twilight blue enclosure, have shed their status as domestic objects to become strange, new, indoor mini-observatories attuned to the cosmos.
Across the room are two elemental, mesmerizing abstract paintings, “Lunar Waxing” and “Lunar Waning,” which evoke the allure, through the ages, of the moon with its phases. Their dark blue, almost black, painted surfaces are like abstractions of the night. Both paintings feature a very large, smooth inset made of different components of polished and ground glass and a low-iron mirror. Their shapes — not exactly circular — have some kinship with the off-kilter quasi-circles in Jean Arp’s sculptures, paintings, and woodcuts; they also obliquely suggest gibbous moons. From a distance these glass insets seem like holes in the painting, revealing the white wall behind them. Up close they at once admit and reflect light. Opaque and glowing, they are remarkable, and they exert an almost magnetic pull on one’s sight and psyche.
The centerpiece in this room — which also serves as the acoustic backdrop for musical and spoken word performances — is “Moon Mirror,” a large (at 103 by 191 1/2 by 71 inches), crescent-shaped sculpture made of prismatic glass tiles, in varying shades of blue, set into a steel armature. The glass tiles juxtapose different designs: concentric circles, horizontal lines in a stack, vertical ones in a row. The crescent shape alludes to the moon while the curved structure suggests a sweeping view of the sky.
This sculpture, which changes with the vicissitudes of daylight, welcomes multiple modes of perception. You can look at it, but also through it. You may take it in as a whole, but also get absorbed by eventful details: how the tiles close to and far from one another have flickering, almost pulsating, interactions; the way that colors and light shift and change when you move just a bit.
“Moon Mirror” summons colors and energies in nature into the space: the rich blue of early night and the soft blue of dawn, nuances of moonlight, the various hues of passing clouds. McElheny has transfigured the rapt act of looking into the bountiful sky, and beyond to the heavens, into a meticulously rendered sculpture that verges on the sublime.
Each artwork in the exhibition suggests consciousness-altering and liberating experiences outdoors — for instance looking intently at the sky, into space, or into great distances — times when one opens oneself to immensity. Here, McElheny, who was born in Boston and grew up in Brookline, Massachusetts, is in some very good New England company. “The sky,” Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in his Journals, “is the daily bread of the eyes,” thus conflating the Lord’s Prayer and Earth, spirit and nature, and directing attention from immediate surroundings and workaday concerns to the ever-changing splendor always above one: clouds, stars, colors both subtle and vivid, the vast cosmos. Important for Emerson, and for McElheny, are expansive views and consciousness.
Each of the six small paintings from McElheny’s Observation series in the front room has a midnight-black acrylic surface and a single large circle in the middle displaying bright, swirling activity, including copious dots of what looks like pure light, and dense, swirling, somewhat ragged clusters, as well as spirals and shards. McElheny teased these luminous images into being, from tiny bits of hand-formed and polished micromosaic glass. The results are terrific.
Look from straight on and the imagery seems painted and flat. Move slightly to the side and you see the three-dimensionality and bristling materiality of the miniscule glass pieces. While basically abstract, these observation circles reference the 18th- and 19th-century drawings of nebulae made by British astronomers William and Caroline Herschel, among many others. McElheny’s paintings also suggest telescopic views of whopping cosmic bodies far out in space, which elude the naked eye: spiral galaxies, galaxy clusters, stars, a multitude of worlds beyond our own.
“Seven Observations for June Tyson,” from the same series, provides multiple views of the cosmos, multiple realities seen simultaneously. McElheny dedicated this painting to June Tyson, who sang with cosmic jazz luminaries the Sun Ra Arkestra from 1968 until her death in 1992, and he singles out the 1970 song “Somebody Else’s World (a.k.a. Somebody Else’s Idea)” as an influence.
Sun Ra’s lyrics — “Somebody else’s idea of somebody else’s world/ Is not my idea of things as they are/ Somebody else’s idea of things to come/ Need not be the only way/ To vision the future” — are strikingly, emphatically sung by Tyson. This song from a fraught, conflicted time confronts societal turmoil, alienation, manipulation, and racial oppression, while imagining alternative futures and worlds.
This painting points to the underlying politics in McElheny’s exhibition, occurring at yet another fraught and oppressive time. It offers revelations of other structures in the universe, other possible worlds, and suggests fresh modes of perception and understanding. “Some chosen source as was,” Tyson sings in the song, “need not be the only pattern to build a world on.” We are clearly in need of new patterns now.
McElheny’s sensitive, inquiring exhibition was also the forum for Wednesday evening and Saturday afternoon performances organized by Blank Forms, presenting innovative art and innovative ideas: for instance, a performance by experimental vocalist Jessika Kinney, who incorporates Persian radif and Indonesian sindhenan, among other forms, into her sonic textures, and another by Japanese improvisational alto saxophonist Makoto Kawashima, who at one point dropped to his knees and played (loudly) to the floor, making the gallery’s very architecture resonate with his wild music.
The third performance in the series was by the legendary, intergalactic Sun Ra Arkestra, with the band members, attired in their spectacular Egyptian/science fiction/spiritual seer clothes, playing in front of “Moon Mirror.” The soulful, exuberant, transcendent, space- and time-traveling jazz of the Arkestra perfectly meshed with McElheny’s artworks, with his section-of-sky sculpture and lunar-phase paintings, his blue-vessel observatories and telescopic abstractions. Twice, members of the band left their positions to parade through the packed audience and the exhibition, while playing their instruments, singing, chanting, lifting their gazes up, and pointing fingers toward the ceiling, and beyond that, toward the sky and universe. Explorative music and art fused into a transformative communal experience. The performance was inviting and cathartic. So too is McElheny’s art.
Josiah McElheny: Observations at Night continues at James Cohan Gallery (48 Walker Street, Tribeca, Manhattan) through October 19.