Josiah McElheny’s expanding universe
With works exploring the cosmos, the Boston-born ‘genius’ artist has his first US museum survey, at the ICA
Josiah McElheny, a man with a passion for physics and cosmology, may have gone where no contemporary artist has gone before: deep into the origins of the universe.
McElheny, 45, a Boston-born, Brooklyn, N.Y.-based sculptor and 2006 MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” recipient, has built multiple artworks based on cosmology, including the big bang theory and ideas about the evolution and expansion of the universe.
“Some Pictures of the Infinite” features 21 works, including sculpture, installation, film, photography, and performance, by an artist whose career appears to be expanding along with his vistas.
“I’ve been fortunate that I’ve always been busy,” McElheny said with a wry chuckle during a recent phone interview from New York.
The artist, who graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design, has had his work shown around the world in more than 50 group exhibitions and 32 solo shows. It’s in the permanent collections of the ICA and Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and the Tate Modern in London. McElheny has a fashion-themed gallery show running through June 30 at the Andrea Rosen Gallery in New York.
McElheny is one of the most important artists of his generation because of the way he addresses difficult scientific questions, said Helen Molesworth, chief curator at the ICA.
“His work might be less impressive if, for example, he sought just to portray the end result of a scientific theory or a documented moment in history,” Molesworth said. “But Josiah tackles the very difficult task of portraying questions in his work. It is an amazing feat that he is able to do so — in his industrial work, in his work that explores historical moments, and in his more recent scientific work — the frequent questions being where do we fit in this universe, how has its expansion affected us, and how have our actions affected it? And, of course, those all lead back to a very thoughtful exploration of time.”
Indeed, “Some Pictures of the Infinite” showcases McElheny’s in-depth explorations of time: historical time, archeological time, cosmic time.
“That interest in time is one of the primary reasons glass figures so prominently in my work,” McElheny said. “Of all the common materials available to artists, glass may be the most malleable, the easiest to change, the most constant, at the molecular level constantly moving, and perhaps most important, the most durable. There are paintings and works of art made with canvas and wood that are just a couple hundred years old and faded or in poor condition due to aging. And there are works of glass that are 500 years old or 3,500 years old that are still intact and as powerful and beautiful as in their beginning.”
McElheny’s latest cosmology-based works would not have happened, he said, had he not entered the biggest collaboration of his life eight years ago.
“It’s funny, because it wasn’t a purely artistic collaboration,” he said. “It wasn’t a case where one artist approaches another and proposes a partnership that would bring their creative abilities together. In this case, I left my field altogether to ask for help from a man whose expertise was in the knowledge that I’ve tried for years to show through my art.”
That man was David H. Weinberg, astronomy professor at Ohio State University, who says McElheny’s approach both caught him off guard and warmed his heart.
“Josiah is an incredibly thoughtful person,” Weinberg says. “I have worked with other creative people before. I’ve consulted on a film, as well. What makes Josiah unique — there are many things — is that he doesn’t just have a passing interest in science, specifically in astronomy and cosmology. This wasn’t just a lark for him. He gets it. And he wants the public to get it through his art. And impressive to me when we first met was how sincerely he wanted his work to be an accurate study of the cosmos and how this all got here, how it has changed, how it is changing.”
The pair hit it off so well after their 2004 meeting that they have collaborated on four major projects, including “Island Universe,” a collection of glass and chrome starburst-like sculptures suspended from the ceiling in what some critics say has been McElheny’s most ambitious work.
The five pieces of “Island Universe” represent different models of the cosmos and other potential universes. Each structure features a central metal sphere, from which protrude metal rods that represent different lengths of time. Those in turn are tipped by clusters of handblown-glass globes and discs of different shapes and sizes, meant to represent clusters of galaxies. Light bulbs on each structure signify quasars.
Visitors who approach “Island Universe,” which is suspended just a few feet above the floor, will be able to see their own miniaturized reflections in the polished globes and discs.
“Given the size of the work, it inspires one to think about the vast size of the universe and our small place in it,” Molesworth said. “But it should be noted that while our physical presence in the universe is small, ‘Island Universe’ makes it clear through our reflections that we are at the core of our world, and a necessary component of it.”
The pieces resemble chandeliers, and in fact they were inspired by the old Lobmeyr chandeliers at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, but with Weinberg’s custom made-for-art algorithms as a blueprint.
“One of the things that made ‘Island Universe’ special for me was the manner in which David and I designed specific galactic clusters and arrangements through blown glass,” McElheny said. “I’m a big fan of accuracy, because I believe if you’re going to ask the public to look at a piece of art and think about what it means, there should be a measurable meaning to it. It’s sort of my nuts-and-bolts approach to the complexities of astronomy and cosmology.”
McElheny has long taken that nuts-and-bolts approach. Early in his career, he studied with a master glassblower in Sweden. “I toured old factories in Europe and studied at them and studied the manufacturing processes, the materials used, the items that were produced, and even the people who had worked in these places and how they fit in the process,” he said. “It was inspiring, and it has informed my work ever since.”
Indeed, in 1999 and 2000 he produced a series about Christian Dior that celebrated the innovation of fashion factory workers. The series also featured a performance-art piece called “The Metal Party” — an ode to a 1929 Bauhaus party — in which participants were asked to wear metallic costumes.
McElheny and Weinberg’s latest collaboration, “A Study for the Center Is Everywhere,” attempts to represent the Sloan Digital Sky Survey’s efforts to catalog the whole of the cosmos, one small portion at a time. The 7-foot-tall hanging sculpture features brass rods tipped with light bulbs that represent quasars and crystals that depict stars and galaxies.
If McElheny has a fear where his work is concerned, it is that both art lovers and the curious alike will read into it an obsession with a clichéd search for the answers to all of life’s questions.
“My obsession is with the science, with the art, where we fit,” McElheny said. “But my personal beliefs are such that I don’t believe in an answer. I don’t believe in even pursuing an answer, a single answer. I think if anyone claims to have the answer — to life, to where we’ve been and where we’re going — they sort of weaken our living incentive.
“In other words, the ongoing quest that we all have day to day, the quest we just engage in but don’t necessarily think hard about, is a quest for answers. And the hunt, the pursuit makes us better people. It would be terrible if we found one answer. We wouldn’t try so hard to improve ourselves, to be better to ourselves and to others.”
James H. Burnett III can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @JamesBurnett.