“Hit me in the head hard enough to knock me over. This needs to look real, so I’d rather you hurt me then it look fake.” These were some of my first words to Chen Shen, then a 1st year graduate student in the Photo Department at Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, MI. Until that point, we had never met before, and I could see him a little hesitant to follow my request. I was getting ready for a performance at Cranbrook Art Museum and we just a few days from the event. While Chen had initially responded to an open request for an event photographer, there was still a very crucial role I needed filled: someone who looked like they were in the audience, who would come out of nowhere and clock me in the head so I could crash into a couple people and hopefully get them to spill their drinks on me to effectively end the performance. Looking like he was a well dressed guest, no one would know he was a performer until curtain call.
At that point, I wasn’t yet familiar with his work, which would have clued me into his hesitation. Not only is Chen accomplished in the nuances of his craft, his work is quite the opposite of what I asked him to do. I wanted him to be rude, angry and the center of attention; to shock and appall others and to possibly really hurt me. Chen isn’t looking to shock, but wants his works to remain open ended, becoming conversational instead of controversial. In his large scale photos as well as his more intimate portraiture, Shen aims to open a dialogue about how industrialization changes a place, for better or worse. Humans change their environments in response to changing needs, yet what are the impulses to change and who are those deciding what change and when? We will continue to adapt to our new surroundings, but are these a manifestation of our dreams or a political power?
Though its only been a few days since he received his MFA from Cranbrook, it has been the better part of a year that he has been honing his Garden Metro series, started this past summer focusing on his home town of Changping, China, which is one of 18 suburbs of Beijing. Often referred to as the “Garden of Beijing”, it has very recently been transformed by population growth aided by the arrival of a new train line leading into the city. The Changping Metro Line took only one year to build, and the project’s speed is a symbol of change in the country as a whole. While touted by the Chinese government as a testament to industry and advancement, Chen is weary of the pace of change in China and its affect on traditional methods, safety and ethical standards that often get in the way of fast paced progress.
None of the highrises, office buildings or governmental buildings and stadiums in the series have people in them. Instead, humans exist within the deterioration of the older ways, in the fields and parks instead of the office parks. They inhabit the in between spaces. Transportation doesn’t just connect two places, it shrinks the spaces in between, as a blur through the windows of a train, dots within grids from a plane, etc. Sensitive to this blurring which can lead to erasure, Chen has tried to capture the accelerating change in the moment, as what exists off the train can’t be seen while on it. In the stillness of these portraits, he aims to preserve what was there just before the train came along, as well as the moments after it first arrived in Changping.
Tom: Do you think there is a certain type of sadness here? A lot of your works relate to how we relate to our environment and how that can change us.
Chen: I don’t really shoot the portraits or landscapes with a ton of light, or making them heavy with aggressive color. I try to hold something back a little bit, to leave something on the image. I want to leave part of the image for the audience to put themselves in it and feel those sensations by themselves.
T: Even those it is not visible in, the train exists in all the photos. It becomes a specter or dragon that divides the landscape, it changes how people interact with the landscape. Your series tends to focus on the change to your hometown, how it is not always positive.
C: I think the rail is kind of a dilemma. Something going too fast can easily slip out of control. The people living in the Garden may have a dream about what the future is, but when things are going wild or crazy, you cannot really predict what will happen. Also there are some things that change so fast. When you leave for a few years and then come back, it is hard to recognize anything. So some of it is dealing with the present with the past.
T: When you went back to China last summer, were you expecting to do this series? Or did it come out of a realization of how different your home town was?
C: I had a plan before I came back to Beijing, but I changed my idea of where I was going with the series when I was able to experience the changes there. For the Metro, everything was new, and it didn’t take that long to build. I took the Metro line, and when you are on the train you can see all the places changing so fast — like in an hour — from the city to rural fields. More and more people are moving further outside of the city, because central Beijing is really expensive. Many people are moving from other provinces to Changping, but work in Beijing, so the Metro line really has changed how many people live there.
T: As there are two sides to the idea of progress, I’m assuming that many people had different reactions to the rail line. Did you see that in the people who you photographed?
C: One or two of the portraiture subjects are my neighbors, and they have been living there for a really long time, but some of the portraits are total strangers. I met with them to have a talk with them as well as to ask their permission to photograph them. I went to specific locations to both take their photograph and talk with them about that place.
T: Has this series been seen by the participants or by people in China? Have you shown them there?
C: I didn’t publish them in China, but they have already been shown on Chinese websites that are like Flickr, as well as photo club sites, and people seemed to have different attitudes about them. Some said they had really been touched by the photos. They can see the sadness and get the metaphors in them. But some people didn’t really want to see that kind of photo. They think that a photographer should not make negative comments about China. But that is not a major part of the public though. There is a small group who are really aggressive in terms of nationalism, and they likely think the Western media has a lot of bias against China’s current state. I think more people prefer the project and have had positive comments on it.
T: With one story, another is left out. Progress is considered a good thing, yet it eliminates another way of being, forcing it out. So there is going to be multiple sides.
C: But I’m not trying to document something as much as finding the lyrical moment.
T: What about your Thesis exhibition? Having to choose only two photos from your Garden Metro series, a lot of weight bears on them to summarize the series. There was a photo of two musicians called Erhu Players and a portrait of a clown…
C: He is a flower delivery clown, so he is supposed to be really happy, delivering flowers and performing some magic for the customer. One day I ran into their shop and asked permission to photograph one of the clowns. I asked the clown to show a pose that he would do for a customer, but to me, he just showed that sad face (laughs). So i kind of think that he doesn’t really like his job at all, and I imagine that he doesn’t really get a good salary. The society is moving so fast, that some groups are getting wealthy really quickly and then the others are not. I also think its interesting to have a clown in this series, because clowns are from Western culture, so its kind of rare to see many clowns in China.
I use flowers as a metaphor in the series, both real and painted, like in some of the portraits. Traditionally, Changping has been considered a very beautiful place and is known as the Garden of Beijing. Flowers are very fragile, some live for such a short time, yet they have been around much longer than all of our architecture. I’m most interested in the sun flower, though, because the sun can be political imagery in Chinese thought.
T: In the photo of the two musicians, they hold onto a traditional instrument of China, the erhu, and repurpose the space to provide them with an acoustic environment. While they are tiny in comparison to the architecture surrounding them, they powerfully subvert its intention — existing under the rail instead of on the train. Instead of forward travel, they stay still in time, even halting time by keeping to the traditions. They serenade the space, humanizing it. Yet if the rail didn’t exist, they wouldn’t have the acoustics it provides. It becomes a new relationship and a new use of the space.
C: This was the hottest day of the summer. Whenever I see this picture, I can imagine the sound of their music mixed with all the sounds of nature and competing traffic. It always brings me back to that moment.
T: This rail line is replacing architecture and infrastructure from the late 20th century. Its pretty recent stuff when you think about China’s long history as a nation, yet it has powerful implications on how the political atmosphere has changed. How is this different than what the 20th century architecture replaced?
C: There are still many supporters of Mao and they are very patriotic. Especially older people. Many of them remember that period firsthand. Western people probably see it as a brutal time, but for these people, the revolution was happening while they were teenagers and so they were swept up in it. It still has a strong impact on Chinese society. After 1979, the people were opened up to the whole world and different philosophies and new cultures. Again, the younger generation was influenced by this, being able to go abroad as well as embrace Western culture. China has both socialism and capitalism happening together which is very interesting from anyone’s perspective.
T: Yeah, there are so many people in America that will defend capitalism to their death even though it is keeping them in poverty. Likewise, any inkling of socialism brings everyone screaming, yet many of the established parts of our society are socialist constructs.
There were several working prints and contact sheets hanging up and laying around his studio on factories and power plants, even some office buildings. All of them focused on steam rising out of them. In the night, the steam is ghost like, filling the space and haunting it, much like the train line in Changping does in his other works. Other times, the steam is barely visible or imbued with a tint applied in editing, yet it occupies the majority of the picture plane. While the architecture remains locked to the ground, in service to humans until it would eventually lose all purposeness and be reduced to rubble, a victim to gravity, the steam keeps rising. Freedom to return to a natural state, barely visible sometimes, yet overwhelmingly there. In their early state, they appeared to be some of his most hopeful works yet.
C: These are new, these are in Michigan about an hour from here. Actually, the tea pot outside is part of my process for this series, coming from a lyrical approach. I started to have an interest in the topics of Wildism and Life Cycles. Concentrating on forms of water as a metaphor throughout the series, so basicly you see the steam here, or the steam from the teapot, or other forms like the factories.
T: They have a spiritual element.
C: Yeah, thats what I’m interested in talking about. Like something behind what you’re looking at. I kept thinking that the factory or the power plant also is an organ of life, cause the factory is kind of like a body and the steam coming out of the chimney is trying to speak out and express something.
More of Chen’s work can be viewed on his website:http://chenshenphoto.com/
This article is part 3 in a series of stand alone kvetching about the state of the artworld. The opinions expressed within are held by a big baby, and not the blogs they are found on. There is no need to read them all, but if your beverage of choice is Haterade, then part 1 can be found here, while part 2 can be found here.
…And if you don’t like Haterade, then this one is totally positive, dude.
G.U.L.F. (Gulf Ultra Luxury Faction) protestors intervention in the Guggenheim, February 22, 2014. With intrepid planning, the coalition drew attention to the Guggenheim’s direct, yet denied involvement to the promotion of debt bondage in the Middle East.
“Art is an antidote to consumerism…. At a fair, art is connected to the weakest part about it… the fact that it has to sell.” — Matthew Collings, during a the Saatchi Gallery Debate: Art Fairs Are About Money Not Art (billed as a partisan debate by one of the biggest money making galleries in the world, whose namesake gained his fortune in advertising, and whose moderator, Simon de Pury, is both chairman and co-founder of the art auction house Phillips de Pury & Company, one of the largest in the world. Just sayin.)
We have become so obsessed with the money revolving around art that it has become a part of contemporary art. Often, when writing about art, we are writing about money. We look at art and we are looking at someone else’s accumulated wealth. Art no longer expresses ideas and possibilities, but also speculations and commodities. We exist in a system that exchanges money for services and goods for money. To say art must be free from the trappings of money says that artists should never get paid for their work. Art and money will always be connected in a capitalist system, and even most artists would not have it any other way.
But what happens when, increasingly, the art work loses its meaning and autonomy and becomes a status symbol for the rich and uber rich? It turns the artist into a stock which can be dumped at any time at the whim of a few collectors. It can draw hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars overnight. Most of the money does not go to the very few artists showing at this capacity, but towards the building of worldwide art institutions and vanity museums, promoting the monumental legacies of a few rich douchebags. The bulk of the cash stays circulating in the hands of the super rich, like a global game of Keep Away, where Big Money always wins. The few artists that can participate in this market become instant celebrities — images of people instead of actual people — their art, no longer truly representing anything other than the continuation of extreme capitalism, becomes the measure to which all other contemporary artists must relate their work to, and the greasy environment where art exists.
We tolerate these excesses and abuses within the art world because we see it to be the defender of the truth — the faith that is art history; a white male dominated Eurocentric history that means nothing at all in the real world. Denying the importance of Germany invading Poland in 1939 would be criminal, as arguing the importance of Jackson Pollock creating Action Painting would be just as ridiculous. That Pollock revolutionized Painting, or that Marcel Duchamp did the same for the object, matters little in understanding the world. What is part of art history is as much anthropological as it is a collection of tastes and values by those with the money and moral authority to maintain such collections, further edited by subsequent generations of taste. Every artwork must position itself somewhere among all other “important” art of all time, even though this is an incomplete picture built on the individual and collective tastes of the past. A past that is far removed from our present. It is beautiful, rich and moving for sure, but is just one purposefully incomplete story, and so is just fiction.
We will not be able to erase Art History, nor would we really want to, as we come to art in seriousness drawn by its history. Gaining the title of artist takes for granted the likelihood of a degree or multiple degrees in the practice, so the academic, by definition, relies on history — separating this is impossible. Instead, what I imply is a freedom to move alongside the history, conventions, dealings, markets, establishments and modes of art. Because if art history, no matter how grand, doesn’t matter, then neither does the rest.
While Social Practice is often some white asshole trying to help minority communities by their assessment of what “these communities” need to relieve their own guilt (liberal imperialism). But there is something within Social Practice that still offers a possibility of a freer art, a freer artist and a more inclusive public. It is within its socialist spirit, within a redefining of ownership, and the fluctuation of time and space. To be clear — there is nothing wrong with objects or images. To describe my love for a perfectly strange object or image as anything less then every neuron firing at once, effectively liquidating my brain, so that the pink goo drips out of my skull, down my spine and into my feet; the tingling sensation of this confused with the pissing and shitting of my art pants, while my eyes bug out and tongue extends to the floor, drooling like a cartoonish wolf over abandoned lambs; time stopping as I am taken out of my mortal body and able to claw at some other realm beyond comprehension just to be thrown back into reality– still does not adequately state my feelings towards the visceral power in the physicality of art. I am fortunate that I am consistently in the presence of great art, from established to emerging artists, who create work in this form. These are visceral responses we have to color, form and composition, becoming even more meaningful in their cultural context. The sprawling utility of much social practice tends to ignore aesthetics or, at the very least, subjugate them to the back burner. (Not that all art need be aesthetic.)
A revolutionary tool of Social Practice has quickly been diffused by the art establishment — that art can exist outside of the constructs of a capitalist white walled art environment — quickly became subjected to the art environment in order to give the work authority. No longer a revolutionary tool, it is instead a case study. Why can’t the next wave of Social Practice address this need for object and image? Completely within its reach, it has not through its determination of institutional critique while trying to court the institution. Socially engaging works with more interesting stand alone artifacts, not documents, may provide this. Keeping to the revolutionary fervor within the core of Social Practice is really what allows for its potential, and that is why, in general I am so frustrated by it. The key to this new art world may lie there: an art world with a stronger relationship between artist and audience, both able to fluctuate to the needs of the work.
Instead of molotov cocktails, what is needed is backroom maneuvering for the proletariat. Like minded collectives with a purpose. Alternative spaces without fixed addresses. Fine art blending with design and craft and consumer objects. Price ranges for the masses, marketing at a small scale. More art shares, art lending libraries. Personal networks that build the backbone of a new art community. Community involvement and investment through education, public programming, parties, entertainment. Invest in audiences if you want them to invest in you. Realize that you are going to be turned into a product against your will in the art world so you should brand yourself instead. Stage your own biennial. Crash fairs. Create new art spaces, like The Suburban was or Good Weather is, both suburban garages which bring great art to the average person. Trunk Shows, internet only galleries existing on facebook, and other ephemeral spaces that question the nature of art space and geographic space in the 21st Century.
If we can even make small advances with the public, we’d gain more viewers and supporters. We would find new markets and create new demand. We would sell more modest priced works more frequently. Instead of the nearly impossible goal of selling in the 5 and 6 digits exclusively, we’d find the more attainable goal of being able to put food on the table and clothes on our backs from the sale of our art, instead of a job we don’t care about. It would offer younger critics and curators to gain recognition for their work. Art would still be a joy, but it would be a joy shared by many instead of the few. Perhaps this art would look vastly different than art today. Perhaps this more democratic art would present new alternatives, new perspectives and new ideas, perhaps its influence could extend into politics and social justice. How much effect can art have in a closed off niche group being bought by the people within power in order to control its ideas and subvert them in to a high end commodity? The spectacle that is swallowing the art world could start to disappear. Money would still be a part of art in this alternate art world, but it would spread out a little more evenly with a lot less glare distracting one from the work. It would actually address some of the real debt that most artists have found themselves in, instead of floating around the Blue Chip Gallery satalite branches showing the same product worldwide. Maybe I’m just dreaming, but it seems to me that it is time to affect real meaning in art.
Butter Projects Announcement image for From Here to There: Ear to Ear
The Whitney Biennial screams. The Armory Show screams. SXSW screams. Most music festivals and art exhibitions in March will scream, elated that winter is finally over, the snow is mostly gone and we can return outdoors, see other humans before we try to escape from them again on summer vacations. To be screamed at by art and be awoken by the grandiose, and the faux political, the happy accident, the cronyism, the speculation, the over-hyped and the up-and-coming, the truly amazing and the market saturated garbage that is always in those blockbuster screamo shows seems to be an annual rite. We tend not to whisper â€œspring is hereâ€, especially after this past winter, but isnâ€™t that a better way to get bears out of hibernation? Butter Projectsâ€™ Spring exhibition, Here to There: Ear to EarÂ aimed to do just that: a colorful and elated return to Spring, but provoking joy rather than record breaking auction sales or trying to define contemporary art through a show. I was being whispered to and they were sweet nothings, dreamy musings by artists who were ushering in Spring by reveling in the ecstatic moment of creation, and not the art world slime that oozes out of the dealers and sharks that are trying to find the next big thing to exploit and bleed dry at the ripe age of 36. If there was a slime umbrella, if somehow an artist could show in an established gallery, free of slime, free of ooze, of political and classist vitriol, of fur coat envy and ever tightening faces, diamonds, couture, of speculative assumptions and net worth, my guess is it would be here. Art can still exist in the white cube and maintain purity, at least it better, or we should just stop and chase a career in investment banking.
Jill Galarneau The Wind Has Its Reasons, paper acrylic, gouache, pencil, ink, pins, 2014
Jill Galarneauâ€™s The Wind Has its ReasonsÂ and SwimsuitÂ explore color and pattern within abstract and geometric shapes, evoking a combination of purpose and play. The former exists as small patterned paper pinned to the wall, in strips and shapes, woven together by steady pencil lines arcing gracefully like a kite tail in the wind. A 1950â€™s esque explosion of martini tinged advertising referencing the innocence (or ignorance) of the atomic age and the power of the bomb are held captive by tiny steel pins. The frenzy is contrasted by Swimsuit, which is positioned within the confines of a frame, and as such, in a much tighter condensed field. Here the possible explosion is contained as the particles build pressure in the frame, overlapping to create new shapes and waiting for a flash point. They collide together and flow over each other as tectonic plates might, segments of animated snakes in Sega games. Both invite the viewer to enjoy the materials and process in the works. While the artist retains the flatness of the paper, she also retains its lightness and delicacy, allowing the viewer to linger with the works, our eyes fluttering around the compositions, caffeinating us.
Katy Lloyd, Untitled (Marge), polymer clay, acrylic, wool, glitter and air dry clay, 2014
Katy Lloydâ€™s art sits in a delicate state between image and object: in direct relation to the wall, either hanging from it on leaning against it, occupying the space in a non assertive way, as they prefer the corners, walls and floor, denying viewing in the round. Their bright colors are sometimes more apparent than their forms, the latter being thin, amorphous, flattened or deflated, yet the colors pop and swell, bleed and vibrate. They take control and often define the form of the objects. Contours in Untitled (spaghetti legs) are achieved by minimal shaping of the paper, so that the creases are quite noticeable as points of being in the object as opposed to material stress. With Untitled (Marge), wool â€œhairâ€ is wrapped around a few acrylic rods to evoke the cartoon namesakeâ€™s iconic doo, a body is exchanged for tripod legs covered in both pastel polymer and air dry clay smooshed on, clenching the legs, the whole thing straddling a pile of glitter poop on the ground. Leaning against the wall with her red clay tip of her head, she is aloof, yet radiating positivity and sympathy. Being the light of the party all the time can be draining, like there is strength in weakness. Across from her is Untitled (hey buddy)(string guy)), a jumble of acrylic sheeting the artist painted and cut into strips, hangs out from a plastic loop in the wall evoking the impossible to solve tangle of Easter basket grass, in a sexy wet ramen noodle heap pouring forth, lingering on the floor in a fashionable plaid of pinks and yellows and orange that points to a stump of clay coyly hiding under and holding up the edge of the wall the work is on. Across from each other, they appear as figures in conversation, or looking for a way out of one.
Jonathan Rajewski, Untitled Â (installation view – 5 works), mixed media on rubber, upholstery fabric, linen, sewn leather and fabric, 2013 – 2014
Jonathan Rajewskiâ€™s abstract paintings (all Untitled) are much darker than Llyodâ€™s and Galarneauâ€™s works. Using gunpowder, caulk, and concrete on surfaces such as leather and rubber, the application is often thick, crusty and textured. They seem heavier with their sometimes murky colors, yet there is still a true play and discovery in the works through line and material. They become free flowing, less attached to solid compositions, giving them a certain lightness of being. Two smaller panels on the wall exhibit the most control within a sprawling composition of washed out colors and meandering line. The rest of his paintings lean against one another in a stack that is meant to be freely flipped through by the audience. Forgetting that interactive directives like this are almost always problematic in their execution, especially since there is no written indication anywhere that this is the artistâ€™s intention (I lucked out by being told by one of the exhibiting artists) the true beauty of the works were revealed one by one as I discovered surfaces and textures both unexpected and lavish. Each painting got better and better, so the fear of dropping one didnâ€™t hold up to the desire to keep going, digging deeper into the pile.
Here to There: Ear to Ear celebrates the ephemeral by means of a lifespan; the works sitting in the complacent knowledge that they may become as out of touch as a Renoir tomorrow, and thats OK, you here now and that is all we have anyway. Often at openings, the art is seemingly in the background setting the scene, bringing people together. Sometimes its just about the scene. Always alone while together, in ones own head and space while amongst others. When art touches us on this level, it succeeds. It doesnâ€™t always have to scream to do this: it can lean its head against the wall and pretend its not listening, or hide itself in plain sight waiting for private discovery — a one on one conversation. The art seems to exist with the true joy and terror of being in the company of others, or the moment of waking up when two realities collide, one ending in death to acknowledge the otherâ€™s eventual death. Knowing this, yet taking that deep inhale, and existing permanently in the moment before the forced bodily exhale.
Here to There: Ear to Ear Opening Night, Butter Projects, March 14, 2014
Here to There: Ear to Ear opened Friday, March 14, 2014 with an opening reception from 7-10pm. The exhibition runs through April 18, 2014. Free and open to the public.
During the run of the exhibition, Butter Projects will hold open hours Friday from 1-5pm and Saturdays from 1-3pm. Additional hours can be made by appointment, to schedule, email email@example.com
About Butter Projects
BUTTER projects is a studio and exhibition space founded in October of 2009. Housed in a storefront built in 1915, the space was conceived to be flexible and open to a multitude of creative endeavors. Our mission is to engage with the community and participate in the promotion of the arts in the Metro-Detroit area by providing a place to make, discuss and exhibit artwork. Butter Projects is run and operated by Alison Wong and John Charnota
Butter is located at 814 West Eleven Mile Road, in Royal Oak, Michigan. Parking is available behind the building. For more information visit www.butterprojects.info or contact firstname.lastname@example.org
Jill Galarneau http://jillgalarneau.com/Â lives in Brooklyn and received an MFA in Painting from Cranbrook Academy of Art in 2006.
Katy LloydÂ http://katylloyd.com/home.htmlÂ lives in Pontiac, MI and received an MFA in Painting from Cranbrook Academy of Art in 2012.
Jonathan Rajewski http://jonathanrajewski.info/Â lives in Hamtramck, MI and received a BA in Philosophy from Michigan State University in 2009.
Â Thanks to Alison Wong, John Charnota and Katy Lloyd for their assistance.
Just as divisions in artistic mediums and practices are blurring, so too are the distinctions between artists and designers. The farther we move away from the entrenchments of Modernism, the more this trend is likely to continue. This month, I spoke with three designers of diverse backgrounds working in and around Detroit as a place of inspiration, community and revival. From the elegant reworkings of Modernist forms emphasizing beauty in the handmade of Brian DuBois, to the decidedly analog textural surfaces adorning Chris Schanckâ€™s startling furniture, to the unexpected combination of industrial and natural materials to create incredibly organic and mesmerizing surfaces in the work of Jack Craig, designing on a small scale provides opportunities for spontaneity, chance, and individuality. During our recent conversation, we discussed how small production can return design to richer, more powerful connections with the user.
From left: Brian DuBois, Jack Craig and Chris Schanck in Brian’s shop, Hazel Park, MI
We become disconnected to design through all the filters a product goes through, all the separate hands and intentions that shape the product. Not only does this remove the designer from their work, but it is somewhat antithetical to what design sets out to do: empowering our tangible and lived experience in the world. As the three of you largely manufacture your own designs, how does this inform your work, as well as the conversation around contemporary design?
Brian: The beauty of having a shop space and making your own work is that youâ€™re able to make decisions right there. You understand the materials and the fabrication, unlike if you were in a traditional firm where all youâ€™re doing are pretty renderings all day. Anyone can draw the fancy picture; but its not until you get your hands dirty that you say â€œoh man, I canâ€™t bend steel this way. I have to go to aluminum.â€ And that changes up the whole game for your idea.
Chris: Thereâ€™s a difference in the way Brian works and the way you describe off the shelf mass produced industrial design, and itâ€™s that thereâ€™s an unknown or distrust in the perfection of product design. They have no visual history. The way Brian works, there is room for imperfection. If you look at his “Detroit on a Platter”:Â he walked through the streets of Detroit measuring, taking photographs, doing his citywide site analysis with eyes on the street, rather than fly by on Google Maps. So I trust in that process, although it may be full of errors. There is an authenticity there that you donâ€™t find in an off the shelf product.
B: When people know that you did it by hand, then there is the aura of the artist. When you look at Jack and Schanckâ€™s work, they canâ€™t be mass produced. Weâ€™re not at that market of selling through Herman Miller or Knoll.
Jack: I have worked a little in industry. I would agree – the pure intentions of positively engaging the â€œlived experienceâ€ is undeniably diluted by the demands of market and the economics of production. And yes, to some degree, operating outside of industry allows you to preserve a more human agenda. It still has its limitations. I wouldnâ€™t say one is better â€“ they are just different. Our lifestyles are completely dependent on the innovations of industry. Sure there is an over-saturation of product – mostly misplaced propositions for happiness. It is capitalistic and flawed. Â But to an extent it is also largely self-policing and fundamentally optimistic. Good design has a way of surviving. The bigger issue is the colossal waste generated.
Would you find yourself in line with the designer, the craftsman and the fine artist equally, does it balance differently, or does this matter at all?
B: My background was in Architecture, so mostly (I made) rectilinear forms and hardly any organic stuff. I had to break out of that shell. The furniture Iâ€™m doing is more rectilinear, but other stuff Iâ€™m working on is a merging of both. But its also about trying to do everything in my shop by myself.
C: Itâ€™s the blending of those disciplines and more that is defining the contemporary zeitgeist. Our world is too complex to work with it through only one discipline now. If art contextualizes ideas and design simplifies them it makes sense to find the common ground between our disciplines. If my limits are that it has to be reproducible and has to meet a standard of perfection, than how far can it go the other way if I donâ€™t have those same constraints? Weâ€™re on the fringe of a traditional design practice. If it was designed for mass production it would have to meet certain criteria, but if we accept the idea that it doesnâ€™t have to be reproducible and doesnâ€™t have to mimic a commercial form, or process, then what are the limits of that?
Studio assistants Neppa and Nirma applying gold tinted foil to Chris’s furniture. Detroit, MI
B: Thereâ€™s still a lot of decent furniture makers that make their solid wood stuff by hand, but thats all high price point, so I guess its a matter of finding out where you want to be.
J: There is opportunity to operate outside of industry while not existing wholly independent of it. Industry is fine tuned for maximum efficiencies â€“ the quickest and most economical means of production on a massive level. This is a kind of extreme. Weâ€™re operating somewhere on the other end â€“ possibly the least efficient means of production. But it is not traditional handmade â€“ its craft imposed on hyper-engineered materials and processes.
C: There are new materials that donâ€™t have form yet, outside of their industrial form. In Jackâ€™s case, he takes industrial materials and makes them beautiful and mysterious. I mean theyâ€™re waste pipes that carry our shit! And he turns them into show stopping work.
B: Its application too, like rethinking the functionality of a piece. So having the craft, the designâ€¦ being able to bounce in all kinds of realms. A lot of it is: â€œIf this is what I want the end product to be, how do I get there?â€
Our relationship to materials is always changing, so thinking of certain types of wood or stone can seem like materials with a limited availability, while plastics, and other petroleum products appear to be limitless, even though they there are unsustainable and rely on our oil supply. Yet, the highly processed nature of them, requiring a lot of human intervention, makes them seem like they have no end, like there is an internet effect on them.
“CORK1 Series” by Brian DuBois. Coffee Table, side table, end table and LED light (not shown). Photo credit: PD Rearick
C: With new opportunities in material there is less precedent to draw from. Itâ€™s exciting; I tightrope walk of sorts, long way to fall down but worth the risk. But like the Internet we pull from, sample and re-mix historical references in new contexts. My work is full of disparate historical art, design and film references, but I try and avoid any one dominant reference, leaving more room for interpretation.
B: Its important to take the materials and find out what their breaking points are. If you look at Jackâ€™s work, he heated up a (PVC) tube and started bending it and breaking it. In his “Broken Board” Series, he started breaking (the boards) with his bare hands [laughs]. So its also about what can we get from these forms without overly analyzing the fabrication process.
C: Maybe the pink foam is something easy that anyone can shape, so it takes less craft and skill at first. Weâ€™ve become babes in the woods when it comes to traditional materials and processes. We approach pink foam with the same naivety as we would primitive materials like stone or wood. I donâ€™t think this is necessarily good or bad, it just means our ways of understanding our world are shifting.
Is furniture design losing its relationship to the concerns of the middle and working classes? With all of the mass produced furniture available at giant retailers like IKEA, does the designer have to choose the market he or she wants to be a part of, or is there still room for all price brackets?
B: When you look at Mid Century Modern furniture, it really holds its value. Many people would hesitate to spend $2500 on a handcrafted coffee table, even though it could last your whole lifetime and be passed down to your children. At IKEA, the designs are OK, but their connections and workmanship are really poor. Its unsustainable and just gets thrown out in a year, goes to landfills and the cycle continues. If people are willing to spend $30 – 40K on a car which depreciates half its value as soon as they take it off the lot, why not spend a fraction of that on some really nice furniture that will last?
C: You must choose your market, and you can operate on a scale of price points. My work exists for two markets, the Art market and the Community market. One trades in the dollar the other in social currency.
As far as IKEA: My grandparents have had the same bedroom furniture suite for over 40 years.
I asked Grandma Schanck about it recently, she told me they bought it when they wed. Sheâ€™s like â€œI hate it. Your grandfather picked it out.â€ So I say, â€œIf you hate it, why did you have it for 40 years?â€ To me she says, â€œBecause thereâ€™s nothing wrong with it.â€ What do you say to that?! Stubborn, love her to death.
So how important is taste in terms of function? Conceptually, I think IKEA is cool; it could do with more range in attitude but I like that you can change furnishings quickly and inexpensively as you change your identity. I donâ€™t operate in that market, but I love lingonberries, so itâ€™s all good. I would never deliberately try and make anything timeless. I expect my work could be outdated before we get through this interview.
J: I donâ€™t have anything against IKEA. In some ways, they offer an education. I donâ€™t think we tend to get the same design exposure in this country as you would elsewhere in the world. I grew up thinking that turned table legs would be something I wanted in my own home, until a couple of years ago when I started studying (design). I donâ€™t think anyone is at fault for the lack of exposure or education. These mass outlets where different types of furniture are being offered at a cheap level only does good, because its a gateway.
So its a starting point. Â As Brian said, most people would balk at the price of a handmade piece of furniture because we live in a disposable culture. But its a push and pull, right? Because some of it is a negative.
C: Sure, there is a relationship, but we all donâ€™t still dress in the dress of the 50â€™s right? Everything changes and itâ€™s a good thing. I think we hold onto that modern look and ideal because of a time it symbolized, but really that time was shit if you werenâ€™t a white male. Iâ€™m bias but I prefer the time we live in now, so what does now look like? I mean Itâ€™s all about variety isnâ€™t it? You can rock a Forever 21 top with Prada shoes, just as you can mix your interior with hi and low. The worldâ€™s big enough for historical and contemporary worlds to co-exist, in fact it helps us locate ourselves in time.
J: None of us can afford our own furniture, so this conversation is a little funny. [laughs] We are on an extreme pole where we make things for a gallery, so its in the vein of an artist, and our endgame isnâ€™t to bring cheap, affordable furniture to the masses.
“PVC Series: Pressed” by Jack Craig. PVC water mains heated and pressured on stone.
Chris, you mentioned you had a project for a class you teach at Lawrence Tech (University), where you were trying to get your class to address â€œthe failings of Modernismâ€. Can the three of you elaborate on that idea?
C: Modernism doesnâ€™t address the tastes of individuals. We designers and artists alike are often guilty of making work with a perfect resting or display place in mind for our work. Whether an untarnished white cube, a compliant scenario or an empty level lot. But the world and our aging built environment is a messy and wonderfully imperfect place.
So as a class we locate our work in a very real context. I take my Furniture Design students into the home of a participating family in Banglatown, Detroit. The family welcomes the students and provides them with a specific cultural context for their designs. In addition to pragmatic needs, the studentsâ€™ work takes shape through a lens of feminine modernity. Where taste and decoration play as important a role as dimensional relationships. The studentâ€™s work lives on in the interior of the familyâ€™s home.
B: As designers, it’s important to have that client contact, as they may have a whole new perspective. Sometimes you have to ask people what they want from a coffee table or a kitchen table. There has to be something else involved besides making it look cool. There has to be a functionality specific to the personâ€¦ sometimes the function has more importance than the form, and sometimes meeting in the middle is really hard.
C: What Iâ€™ve learned from working with other people that Modernism doesnâ€™t address is that taste matters, no matter how much money you have. I went sofa shopping with the same clients for them to purchase a set of sofas at a second hand furniture shop and it came down to two sets. One was more comfortable but had the wrong aesthetic, and the other was less comfortable but looked the way they wanted. The decision was still made favoring aesthetics opposed to comfort. Theres a trade off made on one side of the spectrum. So when we design work for the couture market, thereâ€™s a tradeoff there too, maybe with performance again over look. Whatâ€™s missing in IKEA furniture is the personality: the chips on the surfaces and being customizable, reflecting you and not just every other person that has the same thing. And thats what our work starts to do.Â The range of human experience and emotion is far too great for only one type of aspirational design. We want Mozart and Miley, at least I do.
What sort of trends are you seeing right now in design and working in Detroit that you hope continue this year?
C: I think the trends are really exciting right now. We live in a city where the roles of artist, citizen, designer and architect are all blurred into a maker culture. That culture is innovating with social entrepreneurship and practice. The community of makers here is my biggest inspiration, theyâ€™re my creative heroes. Thereâ€™s nowhere else Iâ€™d rather be practicing.
“Gold Studio Desk” by Chris Schanck
B: Being here my whole life, you see it in waves. Iâ€™m just afraid that this movement doesnâ€™t die down in two years and then its back to totally talking shit about Detroit. The city was always set up for fabrication because of the auto industry, so I think its one of the only cities that has everything you need to make, from materials to labor. To be able to come to my shop and know I only have to drive up to a half hour to get anything I want is a good thing. Rent is cheap here, which is causing a lot of people from other cities to move here. You can get a lot of space for pennies on the dollar compared to NY or Chicago.
J: We are in the middle of a Memphis revival. Itâ€™s all faux finishes, large geometric shapes, high saturated disparate colors, and squiggle lines. What does it mean now that weâ€™re seeing it again 30 years later? Iâ€™m not sure. The movement originally was characterized by a sort of exuberance, satire, and anti-good taste. I think these things are still present but now that itâ€™s being recycled it means something a little different. It is like because itâ€™s pulled from the â€˜80s, it is somehow even more anti-taste. Maybe itâ€™s the design equivalent of the horror genre. Itâ€™s pain crossed with pleasure.
What do you have in store for the coming year?
B: Iâ€™m downscaling things this year and focusing on smaller projects. Iâ€™ve got some lights Iâ€™m working on, some tableware, glasses, jewelry, coaster set — just little stuff this year. Its easier to ship that stuff out. Iâ€™m still working on my furniture, but I gotta keep scratchin at doors to get my products out there. Maybe this will lead to some larger manufacturing. I always have to be busy, otherwise I go crazy.
C: Jack and I are doing a show this May at Johnson Trading Gallery in NYC.
Then Iâ€™m preparing for a show at Almine Rech this September in Paris.
Brian DuBois and Chris Schanck earned an MFA in 3D from Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, MI in 2011. Jack Craig earned an MFA in 3D from Cranbrook in 2012. Thanks to the three of them for taking the time to meet with me and discuss their work and ideas. Thanks also to Brian for hosting us in his shop. For more of their work, check out the following sites:
Miley Cyrus is growing up in a fishbowl, where every awkward moment and undeveloped thought is on display for the world to see, react to and comment on, endlessly. As a country, we construct the cult of Miley sometimes even more than she, her publicist or record label does. Miley Cyrus has become an avatar, just as Hannah Montana was, as customizable as a Scion and as real as an American Girl doll. As we have a hand in creating her personae, her personae is a reflection of us, or our fantasies. Therefore, no matter how much she rebels against the mainstream, she can only help define it. The more she destroys her past image as teenage Miley, the more she canonizes it. The more she rebels, the more rebellion we want, even as it looks a lot like Low Sodium Rebellion in a can. We act shocked though we really arenâ€™t, because we too are playing a role, just as she.
We love celebrities who represent the idyllic American: Beautiful, powerful, strong, intelligent, talented, with the same moral standards as us. We shower them in wealth in order to see how they use it, and so we can have it vicariously. We want these celebrities to act out roles in their real lives, not just in films. They appear on late night interviews promoting their films, on the Red Carpet and charity events as they pose for us. This isnâ€™t enough, so thankfully, we also see them walking their dogs, eating out, drunk at clubs, entering and exiting Hollywood parties. We see them grocery shopping without makeup, with their kids, with other celebrity lovers, in court, hungover, and having sex in grainy cell phone videos. We have so much footage of their lives â€œoff the screenâ€ that they donâ€™t need to exist otherwise.
When we actually come face to face with a celebrity, it is a collision of our lived world and our media world. It is a revelation of mutual existence: that they exist in our space, they can see us as we can them, and so we exist as well. Needing proof for ourself and our friends, that they exist, and that we exist too, a cell phone photo of them is imperative. This must get uploaded to the internet immediately, and now we have returned them to their natural habitat: the media world. Just as they primarily exist in the media world, we only exist in their world as long as we tweet, post, like, share and comment. By uploading a selfie to our facebook feed, we are attempting to insert our lived reality into the media world, used as a mirror to prove our existence, to define our character and how it fits within the pantheon of American myth. It is pedestrian cosplay and hipster role playing.
Its human nature to internalize our faults and dwell on them until they manifest into something larger and looming overhead. The past decade has seen serious changes to our countryâ€™s image: warmongering, weakened, bankrupt, obese, fragile, homeless; as well as a growing rift between the working class and the capitalist class, almost completely obliterating the middle class, which is far smaller than any politician will ever admit. While these perceptions have been there since the 80â€™s and 90â€™s, it took until 9/11 for us to see them. Global media, 24/7 coverage of war and a need to understand why anyone would want to â€œattack our freedomâ€, has led to a breathtaking reflection and reassessment of who we are as a culture, through the Biggest Loser, RuPaul’s Drag Race, Extreme Couponing, Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, Lost, Breaking Bad, Weeds, etc., etc. We donâ€™t even consciously understand it, but we have seen ourselves as theÂ underdogs, the unabashed scum, those who can break free of their past, those who can overcome and those who will crumble. Ordinary people who set out with good intentions but became greedy and selfish monsters. Yet as we assess ourselves through the entertainmentÂ we consume, we lose a true basis for assessment. It is calculated recycling of American myths, regurgitation of roles and tropes, filtering of current events that are replayed as fiction in order for us to learn how we feel about them. As we gravitate towards the fiction to teach us, and blur the lines of what is real and entertainment, it all starts to become real, in some way.