Andrea Rosen Gallery, Josiah McElheny
Josiah McElheny's "Some thoughts about the abstract body" opens today, May 19, and runs through June 30, 2012.
It is a particularly exciting time for McElheny, with three museum exhibitions displaying the diversity of subjects with which he is involved: currently on view through July 20 at Whitechapel Gallery, London is a year-long installation The Past is a Mirage I'd Left Far Behind, in part a meditation on abstraction in film throughout the twentieth century. Over the course of the next nine months two U.S. museums will present separate survey exhibitions of McElheny's work. Rather than present comprehensive surveys of McElheny's entire practice, each exhibition will describe the history of an idea within his oeuvre, with each museum taking on a different subject. The Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston will narrate the story of his projects involving astronomical cosmology and the infinite, while the Wexner Center for the Arts, Columbus will exhibit works that trace his obsession with writer Paul Scheerbart and the quest for modernist utopias.
In advance of these significant exhibitions, the Andrea Rosen Gallery presents McElheny's newest body of work and in his third exhibition at the gallery. Some thoughts about the abstract body explores the connections between the history of visual abstraction and clothing/fashion created by artists over the past century. McElheny uses historical examples of artistic clothing and costume design as a starting point to present his own set of models for abstract form today. A series of sculptural assemblages, ethereal wall works, and a performance with attendant sculptures or props, present a diverse library of possible forms for the expression of images of an abstract physical and psychic body. Seen together, these works propose that our conceptions of and imaginations about the body's possible shape speak to the potential liberation—or confinement—contained in a subjective and non-universal approach to visual abstraction. Throughout the exhibition, McElheny suggests that abstraction seen through the lens of the body might be a path for returning to a conversation about the radical hopes and ideals originally associated with this mode of seeing.
For those familiar with McElheny's work, the exhibition can be considered as both a new direction and a return to themes of about a dozen years ago. In 1999 and 2000 he exhibited a series of projects about Christian Dior and the creativity of factory workers, such as From An Historical Anecdote about Fashion, and in 2001 he staged The Metal Party—a participatory performance that reconstructed a famous party, some say rebellion, held at the Bauhaus in 1929—in which he provided all the participants a metallic costume. McElheny's recent forays into recovering or refocusing on historical figures who proposed a more subjective, less universal experience of abstraction also provide a backdrop for his newest work. In 2007, together with Iris Müller-Westermann, McElheny co-curated a groundbreaking display of the very first painter of geometric abstraction, the visionary Hilma af Klint, at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm, and in 2011 McElheny's highly researched interpretations of Blinky Palermo's "lost" wall paintings of 1970-1972 were exhibited at the Hessel Museum of Art at CCS Bard College as part of his large scale collaborative curatorial project with curator Lynne Cooke and CCS director Tom Eccles.
Upon entering the gallery, the viewer first encounters two wood and mirror sculptures, Walking Mirror 1 and Walking Mirror 2. Part sculpture, part costume or prop, its nylon shoulder straps suggest that they can be worn and a set of lines leads away from them and through the gallery. Structurally, they are not unlike sandwich boards but paradoxically they also cover the face, thereby abstracting and obscuring the wearer's body; when inhabited they reflect the viewer in place of the body of the performer. These works, when standing idle or when activated by a performer six times a week (Fridays and Saturdays at 2 and 4 pm and 5 pm either by actor/performer Austin Purnell or performer Lollo Romanski), set the tone for the way in which all of the works in the exhibition change subtly as the viewer—or the sculpture itself—moves around the gallery space. These "walking mirrors" are hybrid objects that make concrete the idea of the body as the site for abstraction, and provide an experience of how abstraction is both freeing and a kind of erasure.