Narrative glass

Josiah McElheny blows fiction and social commentary into his glass artifacts.

JOSIAH MCELHENY IS ONE of a few glass artists who embrace the complexities of contemporary art and refuse to settle for confections. While he commands exquisite glassblowing technique, McElheny also has a taste for post-modern strategies and tactics.

He specializes in constructing fictional, yet plausible, anecdotes in the history of his chosen medium—thus filling a vacuum, for the history of glassblowing is much like that of primitive peoples. Dependent on oral traditions, it has been ignored by high Western culture as being beneath serious study.

'An Historical Anecdote about Fashion,' by Josiah McElheny

Henry Art Gallery

February 4-May 30

A typical McElheny work, Verzelini's Acts of Faith, was shown at Donald Young Gallery a few years back (McElheny was one of the few locals represented there.) The Acts of Faith included 37 glass vessels blown by McElheny, housed in an antique-looking display case, and accompanied by a text claiming that the glassware was blown by one Giacomo Verzelini, a 16th-century Venetian glass master. Verzelini had supposedly undertaken to copy, as a spiritual devotion, various painted depictions of chalices and goblets he'd seen in religious art during his travels. The piece worked not only as a show of flawless technique, but also as an homage to the long-gone craftsmen who made those glasses and decanters that populate so many paintings in our museum galleries, and as a meditation on the nature of devotion—to God or to one's art.

In his current installation at the Henry, McElheny has moved his imaginative explorations from the Renaissance into the modern era. The pretext for An Historical Anecdote About Fashion is a tale told of Venice's famous Venini glassworks. The story goes that Paolo Venini's wife, Ginette, had a taste for haute couture, and that her outfits found themselves echoed in some of the workers' glass expressions. McElheny has blown this into an artist's urban legend: His text claims that the fashions worn by Ginette Venini were Dior's revolutionary "New Look" of 1947, with its flared skirts, padded hips, corseted waists, and out-thrust bosoms—and that the workers' adoring efforts were showcased as the company's entry in the 1952 Venice Biennial.

As in Verzelini, McElheny's visual evidence for his historical revision includes his own glasswork. Here, 11 glass vessels sit in '50s-style display cases. The vessels pun Dior's dresses: Open throats funnel into tiny waists, which flare exuberantly into bell-like bases. Their pastel tones suggest the colors of feminine fabrics; their delicate surface patterning—helical grids, stripes, and smoky whorls—evoke the warp and woof of cloth, or Dior's hallmark pleats, or the fluffy billows from which the couturier was wont to fashion his ball gowns.

Nearby is a blueprint of similar vessels, bearing the Venini name. Beside this are photographs of a woman in Dior couture—Ginette's surrogate—glimpsed as she descends a factory staircase as gracefully as if it were a fashion runway, then glides away, like a conical chess piece, across the sunlit factory floor.

MCELHENY NEXT SHOWCASES some actual examples of "New Look" fashion: a coat and two dresses by Dior and his contemporaries, from the Henry's collection. These have all the anti-feminist elements of the New Look, from the archaic reduction of woman to hips and bust (as in a wool coat by Lucien LeLong); to sandwiching her between gift-wrap bows (as in a cocktail dress once owned by Lauren Bacall); to cloaking her in flimsy gauze seemingly held together by mere spider's web (as in a Dior dress worn a half-century ago by Seattle socialite Guendolen Carkeek Plestcheeff).

Yet for all their ideological obsolescence, the dresses hold their own against history. As custom couture, they were better tailored than the clothes most of us wear today. The 20-odd darts tapering the coat's wasp waist, and the seamlessly perfect bust of Bacall's cocktail dress, speak of the care lavished by Dior and his colleagues on their creations, and on the pains taken to fit them to individual women. This technical excellence amplifies Dior's peculiar ideal of womanhood. The recent antiques have the air of great power barely contained; their bodices and skirts might almost be those of rocket engines as they hang, perfectly poised, on iron stands in the gallery.

Which leads us to a crisis: Which is stronger, the critique or the critiqued? McElheny's previous shows played off his own glasswork against his own scripts. In this show, he takes the risk of allowing others' creations a voice. The results are a stalemate between his own deconstructive intentions (lyrically described in Richard Martin's catalog essay) and the backward but single-minded vision of the New Look designers.

Of course, a stalemate can sometimes be the very point. But in this case, it may stem from a lack of focus: Beside the title anecdote, McElheny presents surrealist- and pop-inspired fashions (again, from the Henry's collection); and across one wall, using antique fabric samples and more of his simulated glass fragments, he draws analogies between glass and fabric styles of the 17th and 18th centuries. I am all for pointing out historical parallels, but in this case the meandering threatens to shear the show apart. McElheny's stated concerns deserve to be more carefully explored and more powerfully presented.

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