18 April - 5 July 2009
Artwork of the month
Josiah McElheny 1966-
works New York, USA
Chromatic Modernism (Yellow, Red, Blue) 2008
hand-blown glass, coloured laminated sheet glass, low iron steel glass, anodised aluminium and electrical components
213.4 x 173.7 x 48.9 unique
Purchased with partial funds from the Leah Jane Cohen Bequest, 2009
© Josiah McElheny 2008
Since his first exhibitions in 1993, Josiah McElheny has worked with glass to form intricate and extravagant sculptures and installations. Central to his practice has been a sophisticated critical interrogation of the meaning of craft and design within both the contemporary era and particular historical periods. As such, he uses glass to inquire into the history of design in general and the history of the design and production of glass in particular.
In this mode, McElheny’s work can be seen to carry on in the spirit of the intellectual tradition of Michel Foucault The Order of Things that provides a space for the analysis of material classification and their consequent ordering and structuring of meaning and experience. The physical manifestations of McElheny’s inquiries have varied from wooden cabinets with artificially decayed glass objects within, endlessly reflective mirrored still lives, incredibly complex chandelier forms incorporating mirrors and light bulbs, to the modular units of Chromatic Modernism (Yellow, Red, Blue), 2008. In all of these forms McElheny’s work is distinguished by a fine and precise attention to the details of making that is as nuanced as his ‘material hypotheses’.
The physical construction of Chromatic Modernism (Yellow, Red, Blue) is based on Francesco Ruscone’s tubular modular rod display system for works at the Milan Triennale of 1951. The replication of this system focuses our attention on the role of display contexts in the viewing and understanding of material culture. In doing so, McElheny is imaginatively uniting the histories of international trade fairs with the biennale traditions of today as the dominant mode of the exchange of information about objects and the subsequent construction of their value. The shape and colours of the work obviously refer to Piet Mondrian’s paintings and the utopian agendas of historical modernism.
The individual glass objects contained in the display system are based on Scandinavian, Czech and Italian glass designs. They have been produced to reflect the characteristics of mid century glass design and how they work together; they are both individual and communal in formation. The significance of this is that it catches the change between the artistic and the vernacular approach to glass making in the mid-1950s. In relation to this, McElheny and his London representative Craig Burnett have stated:
As with a lot of his work, Chromatic modernism highlights McElheny’s fascination with how the role of the designer and artist intersect. The idea that a designer decides the look and function of an object, rather than a kind of vernacular tradition, is a modernist one. Until the early twentieth century, most quotidian and utilitarian things were designed by cultural groups in a kind of feedback loop over generations, rather than by individuals. The German/Austrian modernists emerged to wipe clean vernacular design and radically remake quotidian things; they declared that trained professionals would determine what is more functional. In that sense, when an artist argues that his or her work has a conceptual basis, that the work expresses a good idea, and likewise when a designer argues that this object will be an improvement on the existing world of thing, the role of artist and designer become intertwined And this relates to both the display method and the object within these Chromatic modernism, with the rise of industrial aesthetics in the 1950s, the social and economic dimensions of design where underplayed amid an ever-evolving desire for style and newness. 
With such thinking behind it, the work is clearly as intellectually resonant as it is materially resolved. It is a major recent addition to the State Art Collection and can be currently viewed in the exhibition THING beware the material world.
 McElheny. Josiah and Burnett, Craig. (2008). ‘Some notes on Chromatic Modernism’, unpublished, unpaginated paper. White Cube: London.