By Andrea Richard
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By New Times Staff
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If you wandered off the street into "Against Design," now at the Palm Beach Institute of Contemporary Artin Lake Worth, you could easily get the impression you were in the showroom of a particularly eccentric department store.
In the lobby sit five rounded cushions, with several items of clothing casually strewn across them, as if someone had tossed them there on the way in from work. Then, as you enter the museum's big main gallery downstairs, to the right there's a low-slung wooden table with a glass vase containing what appear to be flowers, while to the left is an imposing row of five brightly lit glass lamps, hanging a few feet above the floor and casting dramatic arcs of light.
Not far from the lamps is a suite of stark bedroom furniture in pale earth tones, including a queen-size bed with a pair of nightstands, a vanity with stool and mirror, and a dresser. Elsewhere in the main gallery are gigantic beanbags, and upstairs there are cabinets, shelf units, and other samples of "furniture."
What's going on here? Has Martha Stewart finally flipped and joined forces with some sort of deranged designers' collective? Hardly. Check out the posted introduction to the show, in which guest curator Steven Beyer puts things in perspective.
This exhibition of nearly three dozen 1990s works by ten artists, which Beyer originally organized for the University of Pennsylvania's Institute of Contemporary Art, has to do with the artists' "inquiries into the boundaries between visual art, fashion design, graphic design and architecture. This artistic practice has produced work that combines the vocabulary of industrial forms with the context of fine art. Straddling both worlds allows these artists to challenge traditional artistic and design practices, while at the same time, [to] create something new."
Put more directly: The artists in "Against Design" toss the conventional notion of "form follows function" out the window. On the surface, the works included here could all conceivably pass themselves off as the real thing -- items we might use on a daily basis. But wrenched from their traditional context, they become useless, defined instead by their new context as art objects. Form follows not function but the artist's whim.
The aesthetic advanced in Oscar Wilde's famous preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray comes to mind: "We can forgive a man for making a useful thing as long as he does not admire it. The only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admires it intensely.
"All art," Wilde concluded grandly, "is quite useless."
There, in a nutshell, is "Against Design." What conceivable use is that bedroom suite if you can't lie on the bed, or get dressed before the vanity, or retrieve an outfit from the dresser? "Then let us call it art," might be the answer of artist Jorge Pardo, who similarly removes those five hanging lamps from their normal context and renders them objects to contemplate simply for their ability to cast ephemeral patterns of light on their surroundings.
Joe Scanlan takes more of an in-your-face approach with that wooden table with the glass vase near the beginning of the show. It's called Pay Attention Motherfuckers, which is a pretty unambiguous directive to get past the illusions he has set up. And indeed, look closely at the piece, and you discover that what appears to be a floral arrangement in the vase is actually made up of "stems" fashioned from metal coat hangers and "blossoms" that are really carefully shredded Post-It notes.
A second Scanlan piece, generically titled Product No. 2, is a modified shelf unit described on the ID card as "wood, fabric, adjustable and shock-resistant metal and rubber feet." (The descriptions of most of the pieces in the show are likewise dryly amusing, with such terminology replacing the usual "oil on canvas" and "charcoal on paper.") The piece shares an affinity with the half-dozen works upstairs by Roy McMakin, who takes his cue from bare-bones Shaker and Mission furniture.
The ironic reversal of the Scanlan and McMakin works -- which include a four-shelf case, a three-door wall cabinet, and a six-drawer chest -- is that they take furniture designed almost solely with function in mind and then strip away that functionality, so that all that remains is aesthetic potential. A third artist, Clay Ketter, puts the same spin on his Billy-Bob, which combines sleek shelves from the Swedish company IKEA with homemade particleboard shelves, and Cold Kitchenette, a large glass-andstainless steel construction that defies its assumed functions by omitting anything that might make it even minimally viable in a real kitchen.
In his three works here, including the one in the lobby, Tobias Rehberger introduces designer fashion into the equation. Those five rounded ottomans that make up the lobby piece, Performance (Frame Two), are draped with futuristic Walter van Beirendonk garments, while Performance (Frame Three) features a Martin Margiela black-and-red dress and gray apron tossed casually onto a makeshift sofa next to a table.
Performance (Frame One) juxtaposes a set of wall-mounted, backlit panels in warm, earthy colors with a Helmut Lang camel wool coat, matching pants, and a polyester shirt, all neatly folded on the floor. As with the essentially useless furniture in the other artists' pieces, the clothing here isn't intended to fulfill its usual function.
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