Josiah McElheny: Total Reflective Abstraction

at Donald Young, through April 3

Frank Bowling

at G.R. N’Namdi, through March 15

Josiah McElheny’s 19 works at Donald Young are both sensuously seductive and stunningly cold. Five of them look a bit like coffee tables–circular, rectangular, irregularly curved–displaying abstract handblown mirrored-glass objects in a variety of shapes, among them cylinders, disks, and less regular forms. Each table (titled “Landscape Model for Total Reflective Abstraction” followed by a numeral from I to V) has a top made entirely of industrial mirrored glass. The tables exude a kind of showy elegance; they’d fit nicely in an opulent modernist home. But the longer one looks at these pieces, the more conceptual they become. The objects’ smoothness, many curves, and apparently perfect reflectivity dematerialize them. You see yourself, you see the room, you peer into imagined depths–and as solidity seems to vanish, you’re forced to contemplate your own perceptual process.

Born in Boston in 1966, McElheny has a BFA from the Rhode Island School of Design. Trained as a glassmaker through years of study with European masters, he’s interested in the histories of glass, art, and ideas. In an earlier work he re-created a 1929 Bauhaus party, and in another re-created the glass objects in two Renaissance paintings of the Last Supper. His tables refer to a conversation between Buckminster Fuller and Isamu Noguchi about reflective forms in a reflective environment, and some of the objects on the tables are similar in shape to Noguchi sculptures.

McElheny said in an interview that “Model…is informed by the notion that the act of looking at a reflective object could be connected to the mental act of reflecting on an idea”–and the reflections distorted by curves do suggest a labyrinth of different directions for looking and thinking. Step back and the tables and forms regain solidity; come closer and your sight lines spiral in different directions. For McElheny, “reflecting on an idea” is an endless process, one that meanders through alternatives.

Even more visually dazzling and labyrinthine are two glass boxes with a two-way mirror on the front that allows the viewer to see eight glass objects on a shelf in front of a mirror. In Modernity Circa 1952, Mirrored and Reflected Infinitely the objects resemble stoppered decanters, in shapes that range from cylinders to spheres to more baroque forms; the piece also suggests a vanity filled with oversize perfume bottles. We see not only the objects themselves but what seems an infinite number of reflections stretching off into imperceptibility. Multiplying the image paradoxically dematerializes the object, and this simultaneous magnification and devaluation suggests the way that narcissistic self-contemplation obliterates the self–as in the myth. The fascination with infinity’s contradictions also recalls Borges, who inspired McElheny in some earlier works–in particular, he says, “the fear of mirrors” that Borges writes about.

McElheny apparently didn’t intend references to bourgeois decor, but such associations do add resonance to the work. The clean lines of a modernist interior deny our messy, less than perfect natures. Pushing “perfection” to a point where his forms nearly vanish, the artist exposes the impossibility of the modernist aspiration toward purity of line and shape. Viewed up close, his seamless mirrored surfaces seem to represent the attainment of that goal. But viewed from a distance, McElheny’s curved and glossy objects are not only alien but assertively sensual.

Where McElheny’s sleek, high-concept sculptures seldom hint at human messiness, Frank Bowling’s 16 variously textured abstract paintings at G.R. N’Namdi celebrate their materials. Inspired by Turner, Rembrandt, and the American abstract expressionists, Bowling creates surfaces with heterogeneous elements seemingly at odds: geometrical forms, paint clustered into reliefs, and flatter, apparently floating clouds of color.

Born in British Guiana (now Guyana) in 1936, Bowling was educated mostly in England (he’s a graduate of the Royal College of Art) and today lives in London and New York City. As Dorothy Desir remarked about his work in a recent catalog essay, “There is a suggestion perhaps that we in the Caribbean reinterpret European notions of space by bending the grid.”

Bowling says he was surprised when friends saw an American flag reference in his paintings Kiteeye and Nesting, but the resemblance does cause one to notice how the paintings differ from the symbol. The field that on the flag would have stars here contains multicolored stripes and has been flipped to a position at the upper right. The area below the stripes is a solid color, and on the left is an accretion of irregularly placed jewellike gobs of paint that do suggest stars, though they’re in the “wrong” place. Intentionally or not, the painting opposes the aesthetic of the flag: it’s curved rather than straight-edged, messy rather than clean. It also asserts the physicality of its materials–unlike the flag (where we rarely focus on the cloth, if it’s on cloth) or McElheny’s objects, which call attention to the reflections, not the glass itself. Bowling also designs his paintings to be hung in any of four orientations (though there’s no way to hang these so that the “stars” would be in the right place). Such built-in uncertainty confirms his argument against modernist absolutism, some of which survives in McElheny’s work.

Bowling creates his canvases by placing them on the floor, then spilling and dripping paint on them from all orientations–one reason he permits them to be hung “sideways” or “upside down.” He also staples and glues the canvas containing his primary image onto a larger one, sometimes painting the staple marks to resemble threads. These attached canvases are in part an homage to his mother, who was a seamstress and hatmaker in Guyana, “a local entrepreneur who worked with cloth in every which way,” Bowling says. Even without this reference, the glued-together canvases are striking reminders of the materials and the human labor that went into each object. Bowling even glued several horizontal threads to the bottom of the mostly yellow smaller canvas in On Looking to arrest its fraying; such relief effects contrast with the simple stripes of the larger canvas it’s attached to. The irregular shapes and colors suggest the quirks that make each moment different from the next and each person different from every other, while the raised ridges and floating, cloudy forms convey a luminous beauty.

Two long, thin paintings, Pisces I and Pisces II, have been hung next to each other, one vertically and the other horizontally. In both paintings, sharp-edged and fuzzy shapes seem to hover at various levels of depth, combining with the overall “CinemaScope” shape to suggest drifting through the cosmos, an effect enhanced by the reference to a constellation in the title (which Bowling intended as astrological–he’s a Pisces). While Bowling didn’t install this show–and seemed amused to hear of the way the two paintings had been hung–his free approach to orientation in general argues that one representational system is as good as another. No single approach represents truth: there is only an ever-changing flux.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Fred Camper.