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Home Is Where the Art Is

Tobias Rehberger's Performance (Frame Two) illustrates the "uselessness" of art

If you wandered off the street into "Against Design," now at the Palm Beach Institute of Contemporary Art in 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-andĀ­stainless 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.

Pae White's five slick prints back-mounted on Plexiglas are meant to be parodies of billboards using sexually suggestive imagery to promote exotic travel destinations. The point is that their effectiveness as marketing tools is blunted by their presence here as art objects. They may fit in with the theme of the exhibition, but they aren't nearly as effective as the three-dimensional pieces.

The same goes for a handful of works in acrylic by Kevin Appel, who works from architectural plans for California houses of the '40s and '50s to create near-abstract geometric paintings in pale blues and greens. While they divorce architectural renderings from their utilitarian purposes, they're not especially interesting.

Two of the three remaining artists in "Against Design" invite us to participate in their assault on function. You can actually sit on the half-dozen Angela Bulloch canvas beanbags strewn through the main gallery, and what a strange sensation it is to do so. For one thing you may come to the jarring realization that, by sitting in the piece, you have literally become part of it. It's also a treat to discover that the bags are filled with those crunchy little packing "peanuts" -- again, objects removed from their typical context and redefined.

The most commanding piece in the show comes from the Dutch art collective Atelier Van Lieshout. Tampa Skull, measuring 87 inches by 89 inches by 303 inches, is a bizarre blue fiberglass contraption that's billed as a sort of combination bomb shelter/mobile home.

Two chairs rest at its entrance, where a sign instructs you to remove all footwear if you wish to enter the piece. And by all means do: The long, narrow inside, lined with wood that creaks when you walk on it, includes such built-in survivalist basics as shelves, a bathtub, a sink, a toilet, countertops, a cushioned seat, and a sleeping compartment. The "joke," of course, is that such a sturdy shelter -- fully fitted with electricity and skylights -- is useless in a museum context.

I wish we were allowed similar interaction with Andrea Zittel's A-Z 1994 Living Unit II, which is like a little efficiency apartment that collapses to fit into a large travel case. On one side there's a sort of sleeping area, complete with shelves housing an alarm clock, several books, and a condom.

The other side is half dressing room -- furnished with mirror, soap, a towel, and a brush -- and half kitchen, including bowls, flatware, toaster oven, hot plate with cooking pots, and a wine bottle with glasses. A couple of visitors when I was there understandably wanted to touch these items, perhaps even rearrange them, but were told to cease and desist by the security guard. That's too bad, because the piece all but cries out for audience participation.

"Against Design" is only the second show at the Palm Beach Institute of Contemporary Art, which opened with a bang in March with "Making Time: Considering Time as a Material in Contemporary Video & Film." But if these first two shows are a reliable gauge, PBICA is already well on its way to becoming a major force in the South Florida art world.


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