The view from the cheap seats never looked so good. Or so cosmic for that matter. In an interview for Art21, Josiah McElheny described his first encounter with the Metropolitan Opera’s chandeliers—the enormous glass objects that inspired him to make a film, a massive glass sculpture, and now six photogravures. Invited to the opera by a friend who purchased the most inexpensive seats near the top of the theatre, McElheny spent the time looking at the chandeliers, likening them to a “pop image of the Big Bang, some explosion of matter and light.” They were designed by the venerable Austrian crystal company, Lobmeyr, in 1965—the same year that physicists found the first physical evidence of the Big Bang, scientific drawings of which ended up looking quite a bit like abstract art, McElheny explains. The intersection of science and art is naturally appealing to an artist whose handmade glass work has on other occasions addressed the origins of the universe.
In these photogravures, based on McElheny’s photographs of the chandeliers, the objects are in some places recognizable as earthly objects, but elsewhere could almost be traces of explosions that happened right on the page (reminiscent of Cai Guo Chang’s fireworks drawings, or Marco Breuer’s fire-made photo objects). See-sawing between terrestrial and celestial, their liminal quality is echoed in aspects of what McElheny found intriguing about the medium. Photogravure, he says, is “not an engraving and not a photograph, but has an in between quality… Using an extremely white paper to make the lights in the images pop, and allowing everything in the background to go black, the images become “galactic” in a way that oscillates back and forth from image to abstraction because the black is both deep and on the surface of the paper.” There is a magic, he says, to the process: “In a photograph, even on matte paper, the black has a sheen that makes it part of the image, in gravure the black is both its own world and just ink on a surface, a different kind of magic that seemed especially useful to making a group of chandeliers seem like they are galaxies inhabiting the universe.”
Printed beneath each image is a short excerpt from the writing of Louis Auguste Blanqui, “a ‘sad’ book”, in McElheny’s words that “represents a great revolutionary examining the failures of his life.” To my mind, the most fitting statement—particularly for a print project—is this: “Every celestial body has always existed and will always exist, in an infinite series of reproductions.”