Time Out New York / October 8–14, 2009

Josiah McElheney

“The evolution of culture is synonymous with the removal of ornamentation from objects of everyday use.” This hard-nosed quote, from early-20th-century architect Adolf Loos’s iconoclastic essay “Ornament and Crime,” is reproduced by Josiah McElheny as the introduction to an ultra sparse sequence of prints titled "White Modernism." The work features almost-colorless silhouettes of European glassware designs, and is among the latest entries in McElheny’s ongoing study of high modernism’s double-edged sword: its problematic tendency to reduce lofty ideals into homogenous forms.

Three glossy, wall-mounted cabinets housing sets of blown-glass vessels—each a precise arrangement tinted a single primary color—plow a similar furrow, their titles citing the forms’ original designers en route to a kind of neo-avant-gardist mash-up. Even more overtly revisionist is Bruno Taut’s Monument to Socialist Spirituality (After Mies van der Rohe), a finely crafted eight-foot-tall take on Mies’s first model for a glass-clad skyscraper, reworked in the style of a rival architect. McElheny, channeling Taut, has playfully enlivened Mies’s otherwise austere tower by giving it multicolored windows, transforming both exterior and interior according to the lesser-known designer’s aesthetic.

McElheny repeats the exercise in four hand-colored photographs that revamp the building’s stark grid as a busy patchwork of red, blue, green and yellow. Modernism casts a long shadow, and McElheny’s mix-and-mismatch approach to its history has an appropriate—if thoroughly familiar—creative logic. But for all their color, the results on this occasion are a little too sleek to feel either subversive or celebratory.

Image: Josiah McElheney, Charlotte Perriand (and Carlos Scarpa), Red (detail), 2009