It must have been some late summer day, when there was finally enough to eat and most of the larger predators were sleeping in the shade still digesting lunch, that some enterprising neanderthal looking for a new hovel chanced upon something exciting and new, yet strangely familiar, the whole of which stopped him cold. It was this image, stained on a cave wall and linked to his life and the place, in his position in the neanderthal community and relation to larger game that held him captive. It was not the realism, as at this time realism was a bit too frightening. Instead it was the sensitivity, the unconscious awareness that touched his soul made him even consider such a thing as soul, Not just any painting, but the best painting ever to grace a cave wall, better than the Lascaux ones 100 times over. Stuck with such beauty from human hands, an instinct for ownership kicked in. Surely he could convince the artist to move to a smaller cave in the ever increasing slums of the neanderthal community, perhaps something in its commercial farming district? Filled with views of majestic mastodons being felled by hunters, or images of open fields, which will surely inspire generations of painters, from madness of Van Gogh to the rigidity of Grant Wood. A few days after the Studio was born, so was the Art Collector. (Although, at this time, they were referred to as Art Gatherers.)
In the Middle Ages, an abundance of artists meant specialization had to happen. Credibility already became more important than style, and as Lane Relyea said in regards to artists of the 21st century, the studio “gives the artist a mailing address and a doorstep”1, enabling apprentices to find him as “master” and patrons to buy the work by the stacks. His vision of art could proliferate and survive and later mutate, thanks to the studio. During the Renaissance these spaces became an integral part in the life and production of art and artists. Before the ateliers were replaced by the academy, EVERYTHING was linked to the place of creation.
Despite what any “studiobased” program may claim, the academy and the studio have always been at odds. Strict adherence within the art world to keeping the academy intact is important for the survival of so many within it. The academy takes the studio’s place for learning in order to continue some pedagogy and profit from an unending and ever increasing line of hopefuls. These schools usually advertise the amenities of space and equipment at hand for the learning artist. But the student is always aware that upon graduating, that studio will no longer be available to him or her. Artists working in their studios are romanticized, and the elusive space becomes mythologized.
To create work inside the institution walls provides the kind of affirmation most artists struggle for, so to work on projects as the venue and funding becomes available as opposed to paying monthly rent hoping for an exhibition solves a lot of problems. Post Studio approaches also allow the artist a certain nomadic ability, able to shed the baggage of their own halfwrought and failed art cluttering their studio. Able to constantly see with fresh eyes, artists working in this way can potentially advance their own work further than if they were tethered to one location, surrounded by the last works they made. The post studio is also at home in the digital age, where physical space seems to shrink while at the same time we experience an expanding of virtual space. In the real world, this virtual space can take place as flexible real estate: a space that is available not as a permanent residence but as a temporary space. One that is not specialized but an open floor plan to accommodate many uses. Pop up, mobile, nomadic, freelancer, etc., all seem to correlate to this approach, yet within a post studio practice one is quite likely to have a permanent studio of some sort, and the idea of working within the public or real world as opposed to the isolation and comfort of a fabricated world is what often separates the two. They are not at odds as much as they seems as they still hinge upon 1) having or taking the time to think about art’s creation, and 2) the execution of an artwork(s) for display and/or sale.
In 1971, Daniel Buren wrote “The Function of the Studio” a polemical essay which not only defined his practice since, but has influenced many artists to move away from the traditional studio. Perhaps its worth the read, but contains holes. If, as Buren seems to say, that the work of art loses “its ‘truth’, its relationship to its creator and place of creation”2 when it leaves the studio, than photography would be nothing but lies unless the photograph was always and only shown where it was taken; film would be nothing but a series of lies, reinforcing each shot as a deeper falsification, and that the art collector merely enables the artist to justify stripping their work of any truth or “essence”.
Also in the essay, he asserts that the studio, mimicking the shape, lighting and proportions of the gallery and museum, attempts to ready or position the art to be produced for this framework. As the neutralized space of the institution is completely sterile, the work that is produced with it in mind is reduced to the same banality and sterility. The artist is forced to go to this generic space in their mind while creating the work to allow it to occupy just about any space. A residency is one example of a studio that challenges his assertions. It is a transient space for the artist, aligned with the workings of a post studio approach, but often incorporates the artist’s modes of production through a proposal to attend. It is by nature also linked to the incubation network of the academy, often connected to the art world through curatorial scouts or exhibition opportunities. Artwork made at a residency may stay at the space through lack of resources to move it or as a site specific piece to mark one’s time in the place. The work may return with the artist, or it may have been produced for an exhibition already in the works. Depending on the residency, the studios an artist may encounter may be the sterile imitations of the exhibition spaces Buren derides. They can easily be more adhoc spaces with as much charm as function. They may be the woods, the desert, the ocean, etc., so that while Buren could be right that the work takes its form from the spaces in which it is made, these spaces need not be sterile or banal at all. Everything is STILL connected to its place of creation, but we understand that place is experiential and movable.
Studios are a place for quiet contemplation, where artists can escape the pressures of everyday life to create and dream, become or forge something new; a bourgeois space for leisure time. Historically, we find master artists working with many assistants, apprentices and journeymen in order to meet the demand of their collectors and patrons. Buren states that the studio is a place for the production of art as a commodity, as a “convenience to the organizer”3 and a “boutique where we find readytowear art.”4 These functions are both linked to functioning within, or aspiring to the middle class. Ben Davis clarifies class distinctions quite brilliantly in “9.5 Theses on Art and Class”: “class position relates not to how much one happens to be paid but to the kind of labor [sic] one does and how this labor relates to the economy”5. The Middle Class would then include people whose labor gives them authority over others and themselves. It is the desire of the Middle class to “maintain [sic] their autonomy”6. This desire is not linked to monetary gain but to a set of ideals within the execution and formation of their labor. It is by creating or developing a certain product or output that is unique that this autonomy can be best sustained, allowing one to be the sole keeper of his or her commodifiable talent. The artist is part of the middle class by creating work that is to have a life outside of their studio in a collection or exhibition that affirms their uniqueness and position as well as (hopefully) feeding them. When their leisure time (perhaps as members of the working class as an employee of someone else) is manifests itself in consumable works, they enter the middle class. The studio then could be an entryway into the middle class.
A studio and formal education are similar, in that they confer authority on those who have them. As artists we use each for our desire to be taken seriously, just as we hope they will help us make the work we want to make. We take on the studio in transient forms from the start of our education, because it doesn’t matter as much to where we are, but that we are. Responding to a set of circumstances or constructed parameters like rules in a game, we negotiate our lives with our art, looking for ease of movement between the concerns of our stomachs and the desires of our spirit. No surprise, then, that we will move between classes multiple times. We’ll get kicked out of studios just as we got booted from that cave 40,000 years ago, but we can also build again.
If some dank cave dimly lit by a fire served as the first studio, future studios may be strictly digital, the art illuminated by LED pixels created not in a “space” at all but between two or more computers communicating together. A world will be reflected, and in the flickering of the light, the incompleteness of awareness, mixed with the details of contemplation and discovery, the reflected world will be totally new, yet familiar. The objects of that world will work together to create a language around everything vital to it, what is known and what is not. In the reflection we find ourselves, and in the transmutation of matter, or light, whatever, we discover more about ourselves and existence as reality. Regardless of form, the studio is an opportunity we allow ourselves to reflect on an ever present, fluid, wholly immersed, infinite reality transcending time, matter and consciousness.
1 Lane Relyea, “Studio Unbound” in The Studio Reader: On the space of Artists ed. Mary Jane Jacob and Michelle Grabner, (University of Chicago Press, 2010) 349
2 Daniel Buren, “The Function of a Studio”, first published in October (Fall 1979), 57
3 Ibid, 52
4 Ibid, 52
5 Ben Davis, 9.5 Theses on Art and Class, (Haymarket Books, Chicago, 2013), 13
6 Ibid, 14
The work of Chanel Von Habsburg-Lothringen speaks of violence and abjection through the trauma of abandonment. Using photographic collage, she creates claustrophobic spaces to intensify painful experiences. Memory blends with filmic reference, blurring reality so the viewer temporarily loses their footing within the works, leaving them floating briefly like the figures collaged in the print. Focusing primarily on She’s Not a Eunuch! (Re-Birth of Venus) and Postpartum depression – I don’t want to do the nurturing anymore, one can see several correlations in the works, with an overall sense that what protects us most from pain and suffering may be the walls we put up.
Regarding the images at face value, we are presented with collaged compositions of the female body in actual, idealized and costumed states. The figures are denied a concrete spatial relationship, existing in expansive close ups of skin and hair. These images are further flattened through the lack of strong shadows, the abundance bright lighting and a minimalist color pallette. Impossible to ignore above all else is the repeated use of a plastic mask found at an arts and craft store that has been painted to match the model’s skin tone. This mask, in conjunction with two different wigs, disturb the scenes. While somewhat humorously, they are overall menacing, evoking terror in the domestic space. In Postpartum depression, the cheap wig spills all over the image, its wild yet fragile acrylic locks evoke Bridget Bardot or Jane Fonda after a restless night’s sleep, as shimmering cornsilk flows everywhere. She’s Not a Eunuch! features a shorter wig, which combined with the mask, immediately calls to mind Christine (played by Edith Scob), from the classic Georges Franju thriller Eyes Without a Face.
The title reference to eunuchs is not just of physical castration, but of a lower social status. As the Re-Birth of Venus, the role as goddess of divine beauty, responsible for both sexual and spiritual awakening, the denial of castration is met with a new order in sexual and spiritual awakening, one that may ultimately challenge a traditional viewpoint, yet may be more inclusive. A contrapposto stance with cream sneakers as a clamshell, floating over a sea of skin, caught by the current — the trail of stocking — adds visual correlation. All eight of the four figure’s feet float in space in Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, denying their grounding as in Chanel’s photographs. Likewise, a significant flattening of the work is evident: from Venus overtop the clamshell, the other figures appear right next to her in a line, the water extending upwards behind them instead of extending back, and the unreal meeting of the land to water, where the land attempts to recede awkwardly in two directions. This nod is not merely to one painting, but to an awkward and slow move towards full spatial perspective, one that acknowledges a transition in understanding as well as tastes, that insists on a certain adolescent stage that is crucial to development that should not be ignored.
The flatness of the image, coupled with the extreme close ups, are confrontational, brightly lit and without strong shadows to help distinguish contour, space or form. In this we are unable to look away or deny the abuses on the child by the parent, or ignore that baby does see, that the future self sees, recognizes and is still shocked. In this tightening of space there is little room for anyone, and so the child gets pushed out; they hide behind a mask to create a private space for themselves that aims to protect them and hide their pain, as pain is often punished with more pain.
Trauma is often revisited by the victim through some sort of reenactment. Often in photographs and film, we view restaging of events both real and fictional. Our ability to imagine an event that we have no knowledge of can be shaped through filmic events. As I correlated one filmic character to Chanel’s figures, another can be drawn from Lee Geum-ja (also a victim) in Park Chan Wook’s Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (2005), and again, Scob can be seen in Chanel’s photo Postpartum depression, as the limo driver inLeos Carax’sHoly Motors (2012), where Scob briefly reprised her famous role in Eyes Without a Face by donning a similar mask. A reenactment from a scene from a film could allow one to try to live out a situation, making it real, though it remains an encapsulated fiction within reality. If one cannot relate to the trauma depicted through events in their own life, the filmic knowledge of it may step in. It may be that the events we live sometimes seem so surreal that we correlate them to a film, possible to remove ourselves from them. Perhaps also are the ways we remember events, taking on nuances from various filmic scenes collaged together. This is one example of universal trauma, though it is imagined through the viewing of film. In this way, Chanel allows another entry point into her work, while at the same time calling to mind elements of art history. Which is why the relation to Eyes Without a Face is not just perfunctory: Christine was a victim of her father’s abuse, repeatedly inflicted on her physically and mentally, all the while claiming he was helping her, and that the abuse was love. She was a monster, but only through the eyes and actions of those who claimed to love her.
A second universal trauma, one that is directly experienced, is the abjection of the body. As the body excretes, exudes and decays, it fails our perception of the perfect human, one that is young, beautiful and immortal. Abjection is inherent in trauma, as the traumatic deteriorates and degrades its victim, lowering their understanding of themselves within the world. Trauma can displace the victim as to radically change the perception of the self, especially due to the severity. The lack of ground in the photos is a displacement through trauma and abandonment. Abjection in the photos also takes place in the skin, not merely through the nude body, but also through its whiteness. The mask, the baby, the stockings, cream shoes and blonde wigs are signifiers of whiteness: blending in, the status quo, innate privilege and authority; but whiteness is also demented, sinister and anxiety-ridden. Coupled with nudity, it seethes into a sticky underbelly, one guilty by association. It suggests a malevolence in how it swallows the space of both photographs, consuming the figures.
The Gaze is represented fairly straight forward in She’s Not a Eunuch! — she gives it right back to the viewer knowing she is being watched, coyly playing the part in a humorous way. In Postpartum depression, abuse is acted out for the viewer, but as the abused is the abuser, the gaze is also directed inward towards the self. The cycle of violence spins around forever within the claustrophobic picture plane, to be revisited again and again. The gaze stays within the image, and travels around it in a triangle, from the large close up in the background, down to the self with child, they shoot their eyes to the larger baby whose hair has been cut, whose eyes we can’t see, but its positioned towards the background close up. The format recalls countless horror movie posters from the 1960’s, both classic and cult, foreign and domestic. It is a language of conflict within the individual; the individual made outcast by the family or society. Beyond a lack of understanding, we create monsters through unconsolable differences.
To live new and become another is one possibility within the mask. Sometimes it merely hides one from themselves. In Chanel’s work, the most space offered in the images is between the mask and the wearer’s face. If there is any breathing room, it is here, in the gasping humidity of hurried breath where the world is contained, as everything outside of this is an ever tightening space of abject horrors replayed.
Chanel Von Habsburg-Lothringen is a recent recipient of the Toby Devan Lewis Fellowship. Her work described above was featured in “Tools of the Trade: Cranbrook Academy of Art 2014 Graduate Degree Exhibition”. She received an MFA in Photography from Cranbrook Academy of Art in May 2014.
The floor is covered with silver tarps and the entrance wall has the press release hand scrawled in acrylic paint. Partitions of white heavy plastic sheeting hanging from aluminum support beams create booths to mimic an art fair. This is Jose Lerma’s own art fair, where the works are made on site while you watch. For a full month during gallery hours, the artist and his assistants utilize MoCAD’s main exhibition space as an artist studio, transforming it into a one person art fair. Having opened May 16, the final display is this Friday, June 13, and will remain on display through July.
One of the strongest works on display is the monster made of U of M T-shirts and Spongebob’s idiotic face hanging from reflective curtains. Walking past the work lights blaring directly onto the curtains, the fabric reacts to create a fantastic sunset effect, albeit unapologetically cheesy. A few hanging junk assemblages are painted a uniform bright yellow to match Spongebob Square Sun. Two slabs of brick ruins from an old brownstone “play” a keyboard set to a shimmering new age setting. The bricks find their final resting place on the keys, and a non stop trance inducing drone fills the entire museum, aided by a small amplifier and the building’s open floor plan. The whole effect is theatrical and sublime, allowing the materials to transcend their position as trash or generic objects of ennui.
To the right is a horizontal stripe painting and a wooden cube reacting to a strobe light overhead. The colors become animated in the lights, dancing to the keyboard drone and a disco beat locked somewhere in the colors and released by the artist’s intervention. While this small section is playful, the strobe gets down to business in the next installation. In the west corner of the gallery, mirrors on both walls work their magic to turn a quarter circle of pastel painted bricks into a full circle. These surround a constructed podium adorned with triangles in every color and direction, ripped from a thrift store sweater (plus a background of Bird Shit White), housing plants and two tube TVs. The TVs play the same video: a few people in this very same environment making unintelligible sounds by flicking their cheeks incessantly, as if they are trying to create a language. The strobe is in the video as in the actual space, slowing down the video by de emphasizing certain frames within. This visual doubling and redoubling is complemented by the mic’d sound of the cheek recital. It too seems doubled and redoubled to the point of not even recognizing it as human: getting within earshot it sounds like a fountain. It takes watching the video and seeing yourself in the space to realize that it is not.
In a video made by MoCAD to promote the exhibition, Lerma speaks about the materials and the resulting work’s relationship to Detroit. He says: “I found a lot of these things on the street. And it’s shocking that they make a suitable replacement for artworks at an art fair; just junk that I found and you put together in a day.” Said so coyly, it seems like a dig, but I doubt to artists who work within the framework of detritus. Since he teaches at one of the nation’s largest art schools, he probably sees more than his fair share, and from all sides, of work that re-makes polemical modernist art, both from his peers and fellow faculty still engaged with it, and young students trying to address it in their smirkingly angry way. Go to Basel and see that shit is in some horse stalls across from the original LeWitts, Judds, etc., and you’re likely to think you can never escape it. So while the fake minimalist crap in the northwest part of the gallery looks really boring, there are a range of artworks at an art fair. Winners and losers. At Basel, its not just the works on display but the spectacle, the who’s who of both sides. The only thing that changes is the number of works still available for purchase. At MoCAD, the number of works keeps increasing, each hour and each day, creating more potentials of dialogues within the works in the exhibition.
While the museum claims Lerma is addressing the history of the building as a former auto dealership, the only real connection is through class markets. As the dealership no longer exists, the market is no longer the people who make the product. Underlining this is the idea of transient economies, like an art fair. Keep reading the press release and no one talks of sale, just dismantling. With support from Andrea Rosen and Kava Gupta Chicago/Berlin, the works will likely go on sale after the exhibition in other economies. The slimy part of art which is on full view at art fairs gets pushed almost entirely out of sight here. Standard procedure, sure, and several of these works deserve a good home. With the DIA just a couple blocks north of MoCAD, one can’t help but think of unspoken intentions when it comes to politicizing art speak. Since Lerma has never avoided history and politics in his work, I don’t doubt he sees this as another relationship his work creates with Detroit.
Beautiful cacophony, the secret rhythms of color exposed and a perfect blending of light, sound and materials. I can’t see him as this cynical, even though he is. Even at his most cynical, the resulting work is too beautiful to deny. Its like a predator perfectly stalking its prey, and that fragile creature who, in a moment of self absorption, or not being quick enough, or just dumb fucking luck — succumbs to the predator with such grace, that the whole event is nothing less than majestic. Everything that took place was exactly as it should, with nothing extra and no piece of carnage left out. The viewer is left staring, amazed. And as the drone seeps into your subconscious, the strobe lights screw with your sense of time and place, you start to understand the language created by the cheek recital.
José Lerma: La Bella Crisis is organized by MOCAD. It is curated by Elysia Borowy-Reeder, Executive Director of MOCAD and coordinated at MOCAD by Exhibitions Coordinator Zeb Smith. Exhibition runs from May 16 – July 27. For more information, visit MoCAD’s website here.
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.
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: