Last weekend I went to see Josiah McElheny’s ‘The Crystal Land’ exhibition at Bermondsey’s White Cube. Among the items in this collection were his series of ‘paintings’ consisting of glass domes and pillars set inside gem-shaped, mirrored window boxes (not shown):
Looking inside these structures, I was reminded of what it’s like to stare down a cathedral nave – ad infinitum – or of the Wizard of Oz’s Emerald City:
The exhibition is inspired by the work of Robert Smithson, who makes similar gem-like window ‘paintings’. The exhibition blurb states:
Smithson’s series of ‘paintings’ … ─ reflective plexiglass and painted metal, fashioned into three-dimensional, crystalline constructions ─ complicated the prevailing Modernist rejection of painting as a window onto the world and assertion of painting as pure surface – source
Modernist painting, then, does not seek to show us the world through the artwork such that we contemplate the subject of the artwork, and contemplate the artwork itself only insofar as it represents the subject, but instead seeks to make us appreciate the artwork for its own sake, to interest us in the qualities of the art object only and not in the subject of the artwork. The form of the artwork becomes increasingly important, until the subject is entirely effaced in favour of non-representative abstract art:
McElheny’s prisms are made of glass, a material that is well suited as a window or lens to reveal what’s behind it. In this case they do not facilitate the depiction of anything – but nor are the glass blocks themselves the sole object of contemplation. We can look at the shapes the glass blocks take, but this isn’t all we see. The main item of interest is the infinity of reflections outside and inside the blocks. These reflected images don’t have any material presence, like other non-representative art objects do (such as the Kandinsky above), although of course they couldn’t occur without the material presence of the prisms and the reflective glass and the light itself, I suppose. But a large part of what we see is not the art object, is not material, and is dependent on the presence of the viewer to reconstitute all these reflected light beams into what looks like, but is not really, an infinity of naves, vaults and pillars. That’s pretty cool!!
The exhibition title is also inspired by Smithson: in his eponymous essay he writes of a glassy 60’s aesthetic he experienced on a crystal-hunting geological excursion:
From the shiny chrome diners to glass windows of shopping centers, a sense of the crystalline prevails – source
The crystalline prevails in the 21st-century too: the straight lines and sharp edges of at least some of our skyscrapers are brutally precise. Crystals grow in order and structure, too – but out of craggy chaos. I vote for a little more chaos and a little more fancy.