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Josiah McElheny
Donald Young Gallery
224 S. Michigan Ave., Suite 266, Chicago, IL 60604
November 13, 2010 - January 28, 2011

High Modern Candy
by Joel Kuennen

Candy. Lots and lots of brightly packaged eye candy in infinite planes, forcing comparisons across colored contrasts. McElheny is one of those artists who produces work that can be enjoyed without a background in art, but it’s fun to throw words at it too. Complex-simplicity seems to be his operating system. Light-refracting glass objects are placed in monotone cabinets like so many deco pill bottles, in the respective Czech, Finnish, and Italian Modernism series, 2010. Or perhaps a cityscape of glass geometry existing infinitely in the middle of a room, as in Crystalline Landscape After Hablik and Luckhardt I, 2010, better exemplifies the calm storm that is McElheny’s work.

Then comes the theoretical structure of his finely wrought work. McElheny is a master of object “historics.” I say it in this way because the kind of history that he utilizes for his practice bears little resemblance to the type of art history-based practice many are used to. What is produced in this practice is a dialogue about simultaneous histories, existing amongst objects through time.

McElheny plays with style like a footnote, albeit a footnote that could stand alone, using it to bring nuance to the greater text. In his pieces from the Modernism series, he counterpoises International Modernist styles from three different nations, Czechoslovakia, Italy and Finland (McElheny's Red Finnish Modernism and Blue Italian Modernism, 2010, seen immediately above). The clashes at first seem minute; the color parity draws one’s attention immediately. But slowly, dissimilarities arise and styles begin to develop. The particular national style washes over the objects like the glow of colored light the objects are presented in. Turning the objects into forms, light and dark determine gestalt rather than the other way around, and the sculpture takes shape. Then the form of the objects can no longer be discerned from the form of the installation, and the artwork falls into unity. The vases in the cabinets no longer signify a time or a maker, but an immediate existence in concert with its grouping.

The “historics” of McElheny arise in Crystalline Landscape After Hablik and Luckhardt I (2010, seen immediately above, detail seen below) in a slightly different configuration. Working within a similar thematic, McElheny decides to squeeze space a little bit further.

Crystalline Landscape’s towers are reminiscent of Bruno Taut’s colorful Glass House, 1914, a reference that is reinforced through the third set of work present at Donald Young Gallery. Bruno Taut on Mies van der Rohe (1922) ii, and Bruno Taut on Mies van der Rohe (1922) iv, both 2009, take images of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s iconic High Modernist skyscrapers and add some color. Again, McElheny is at play, mixing genres and styles like he’s musical mash-up maven Girl Talk.

In 1908, Adolf Loos wrote in Ornament and Crime, “We have our culture which has taken over from ornament.”  What did Loos, architect of Dadaist Tristan Tzara’s house in Paris and critic that helped birth a critical discourse around European Modernism, mean by this statement, “we have our culture”? Modernism for Loos was a reach beyond what had existed, it represented the hopes of a culture beyond that of advanced capitalism and his critique was heavily based in a pragmatic Marxism. He believed that the only way in which society could maintain the speed necessary for cultural production and dissemination at a “modern” rate was to become a society of the mind. Meaning and signification would not remain in décor and ornamentation but in the signification of form and substance, in other words, by the society’s relationship to space. Loos called for a shift from an inefficient material culture towards a quickly communicable immaterial culture, something eerily similar of what can be said of today’s quick, self-reflective online cultural environment.

Loos is cited as a symbol by McElheny, as Loos is the father of Modernism that inspired utopic architects and artists, like Hablik and Luckhardt. McElheny’s Crystalline Landscape presents a version of these dreamers’ vision. A metropolis of glass, simple forms but complex, repeated infinitely into space by their objecthood. Perhaps this is McElheny’s rebuttal of Loos’ reactionary optimism; reproduction of the object, material culture, still exists and will exist even if the form is Modern perfection.

-Joel Kuennen, ArtSlant Staff Writer

(All images provided by the Donald Young Gallery and used by permission.)

Posted by Joel Kuennen on 1/10/11

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