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Infinity up on trial

Josiah McElheny’s “Island Universe.”

David L Ryan/Globe Staff

Josiah McElheny’s “Island Universe.”

On the face of it, Bob Dylan’s surreal, sardonic, incendiary poetry has little in common with artist Josiah McElheny’s professorial aesthetic – a sensibility that traffics in science, self-consciousness, and shiny surfaces.

But Dylan cries out for quotation on many occasions, I find. And McElheny’s compelling show at the Institute of Contemporary Art, “Some Pictures of the Infinite,” just happens to be one of them.

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“Inside the museums,” sang Dylan in “Visions of Johanna,” a twangy, portent-filled song from the great 1966 album “Blonde on Blonde,” “infinity goes up on trial.”

David L Ryan/Globe Staff

Josiah McElheny's "Some Pictures of the Infinite" at the ICA.

The same verse goes on, of course, to give us the unforgettable images of Mona Lisa with the highway blues (“you can tell by the way she smiles”) and – in a climax of inspired rhymes – a jelly-faced woman with a mustache saying, “Jeez I can’t find my knees.”

But it’s that notion of museums putting infinity on trial – staking their own claims on timelessness, insulating their contents from the endlessness of the outside world – that lingers in the puzzled mind, and which seems so apposite to McElheny’s “Some Pictures of the Infinite.”

It’s a show, after all, about infinity. It’s also about museums, mirrors, modernism, multiverses, revolution, the Big Bang, and much more.

It has spectacular moments – among them the boxed-in nightmare of “Czech Modernism Mirrored and Reflected Infinitely.” This work, from the ICA’s permanent collection, is an arrangement of handblown mirrored glass vessels in a display case backed by an industrial mirror. The vessels seem to recede infinitely, in a nightmare of replication. The result is an alluringly shiny but terrifying vision, from which you may not want to avert your eyes.

McElheny makes art deliberately, methodically, and critically.

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Superb, too, is a room of short, experimental, mostly abstract films — by filmmakers other than McElheny — projected onto three-dimensional, mirrored surfaces. The resulting effects seem merely natty at first. But then you get close, attracted by the sculptural forms of the screening surfaces, and you suddenly fall into them, at which point you can do nothing but marvel.

The five-minute Bruce Conner film “Looking for Mushrooms,” projected by McElheny into an open-sided, mirrored box that replicates its imagery infinitely both to left and to right and up and down, produces one of those “whoa” moments you wish museums could produce more often.

But despite such high points, this is a show that sputters and cuts out, too. And that, I feel, is because of McElheny’s own obsession with putting things “up on trial.”

McElheny is in the business of interrogating preconceptions and, by and by, establishing guilt: the guilt of history (in which he has said he doesn’t believe), the guilt of capitalism, of modernism, of museums, and even of science, his latest obsession.

He makes art deliberately, methodically, and critically. The virtue of his approach is the virtue of all critical thinking: It can make you question lazy assumptions.

But it can get lost, too, in its own giddy speculations (not believing in history is an example: try that out on a Holocaust survivor, or a Syrian rebel). And it comes at the expense of what I, for one, long for in art: the nailing down of felt truths.

All this merely makes McElheny representative – one of the most interesting representatives, I’d hasten to add – of a generation of contemporary artists who identify themselves and their art with academic ways of thinking.

Sometimes these artists have produced captivating results. But, by and large, they have been too much under the sway of their intellectual heroes — thinkers like Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Theodor Adorno, and Walter Benjamin.

The once radical ideas of such theorists were very much the canned goods of the academy by the 1990s. Twenty years later, though the ideas themselves remain pertinent, their application in art and in the academy feels ploddingly conventional.

In their eagerness to expose the false consciousness all around them, artists like McElheny have also failed to realize that there is a difference between exposing the fallibility of inherited ideas and genuinely seeing things afresh – seeing things, in other words, like an artist.

Jason Mandella

Josiah McElheny’s “Czech Modernism Mirrored and Reflected Infinitely.”

McElheny is smart and self-conscious enough to have avoided the worst indulgences of his brainy peers. And his considerable skills as a glass artist distinguish him, giving his ideas more grip, his works real sculptural and optical oomph.

But his academic tendencies do frequently get the better of him, limiting his work’s ability to get under our skin.

They get the better, too, of curator Helen Molesworth, who sees so many ideas in McElheny’s work that she resorts to an 18-page “dictionary of ideas” as the catalog’s opening gambit. A similar “dictionary” appeared in the catalog accompanying the ICA’s Roni Horn show in 2010. The result, then as now, is intellectual soup.

Ideas, in fact, have the same relation to McElheny’s work as wisps of steam do to a bowl of hot soup. They smell nourishing and full of promise. But they evanesce.

The ideas in question can be about our own mortal position in relation to infinite time and space. They can be about the potential and meaning of labor in a capitalist system. They can be about aspects of modernist design that were both utopian and fanatically controlling. They can be about the cyclical nature of political revolt. They can be about representing aspects of the Big Bang theory, or, conversely, about the impossibility of representing scientific understanding in art.

But rarely do the works themselves congeal into a cogent argument or proposition about any of these matters, much less a poetic expression of a felt truth. Instead, they are adornments, garlands, wreaths crowning ideas not yet embodied, only partially articulated.

Still, many of them do look great. The last room, in particular, filled with an installation of hanging chandeliers called “Island Universe,” is amazing. And maybe, to return to Bob Dylan, I’m just the thin man in his famous ballad: I know something is happening here, but I don’t know what it is . . .

Sebastian Smee can be reached at ssmee@globe.com.
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