Josiah McElheny: Observations at Night
New York CityJames Cohan Gallery
September 6 – October 19, 2019
The evening of September 11th I sat on the smooth concrete floor of James Cohan’s new gallery in Tribeca to take in a performance by Hamid Al-Saadi and Amir ElSaffar. The two musicians sat in front of Josiah McElheny’s Moon Mirror (2019), a semi-circular structure composed of squares of blue prismatic glass set in a stainless-steel frame. The Moon Mirror is intended to evoke our moon, rising or sinking below the horizon, triggering an awareness of liminal phases and thereby a sense of openness and possibility. That night ElSaffar accompanied Al-Saadi on a hammer dulcimer as the scholar and singer of the Iraqi maqam filled the room with vocal melodies that expressed an emotional range I felt I understood even if the singer’s words were inaccessible to me.
Observations at Night is McElheny’s first solo exhibition with James Cohan and the artist’s Moon Mirror is activated regularly by performers who have been invited by the interdisciplinary non-profit platform Blank Forms to transform the sculptural space into a stage. This gesture gives the work a purpose and connects it to McElheny’s 2017 Madison Square Park installation where a similar wall was employed as a backdrop for staged performances. In both cases, the sculptural object is also an architectural form that becomes the setting for the creative expressions of other people. It’s an artwork that embodies the essence of transitionary identities and corresponds conceptually with Three Twilight Labyrinths (2019), a triptych of mirrored dioramas set into one wall that appear to shift in perspective as one moves past them. Here, McElheny suspends the notion that there is anything other than liminal space, as the artwork denies the stability of any fixed position.
McElheny debuts two new series of work in this show: “Observations” and “Lunar Waxing/Waning.” Both series involve similar materials and appeal to watchers of the night sky. Of the “Observation” series, the most complex is Seven Observations for June Tyson (2019), which infuses an otherwise formal handling of material with historical voltage and connects the object—through reference to the famous singer—with the performances that occur before McElheny’s Moon Mirror. The other works in the “Observations” series function like variations on a theme, each including one piece of “mico-mosaic” glass embedded into a darkly painted surface. The compositions of these mico-mosaics evoke galaxies seen through telescopes. They give the sense of infinite area compressed into an object the size of a dinner plate; they are mesmerizing.
“Lunar Waxing/Waning” is the new work that impressed me most. Two darkly painted wood panels are presented side by side, each with a pearly glass disk inserted into the surface of the panel. The disks are not quite round and seem to both reflect light and absorb it, depending on where one stands. The deep anchor of the distant cosmos in the “Observations” series is traded here for a compelling and unique representation of our moon. Like Moon Mirror, it is left open whether the “moons” in these pieces are rising or sinking, growing fatter or becoming slivers. What is evident is that they too are calling up a moment of movement, of transition, and do so in a way that makes the intellectual structure of the show obviously circular, phase-based, and bound to temporalities whose principle characteristic is to be always in state of change.
McElheny’s Observations at Night is about the sky, or to be more precise, about the act of looking at the sky after the sun has set. And when one considers all the reasons humans have had—and continue to have—to look up at the night sky, one imagines an infinite variety churning within a set of known possibilities. It is this that pushes McElheny’s show past a statement and into an expression of potential—one that is renewed every night a performer takes the Moon Mirror stage.