"Jorge Pardo: House," now at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCA) in North Miami, is the sort of show that's likely to divide museumgoers into two camps: those who will emerge stroking their chins and going "Hmmm... interesting" and those who will be left scratching their heads and going "Huh?" Or put more bluntly: those who accept it as art and those who don't.
On this count, at least, the Cuban-born, Los Angeles-based artist has succeeded. Part of Pardo's entire project, broadly speaking, has long been to blur the lines that normally appear to separate art, design, and architecture from one another. He seems to think of them instead as points on a continuum, and in this regard, "House" fits perfectly into a career that this small show examines seemingly at its midpoint.
The exhibition takes the form of a series of interlocking spaces that, taken together, more or less make up the house of the title. From an office area near the entrance, you can proceed down one wall of the museum through the front garden and living room or down the other wall through the kitchen, dining room, and courtyard, in both cases ending up in a very large bedroom. The interior of a local bar forms a kind of coda in a rear corner.
The rooms are fully furnished. Moving through them, however, you quickly realize that some of the décor is functional while some is not, and much of it exists only as massive photomurals on the walls. (The latter are from previous Pardo projects, including 4166 Seaview Lane, for which the artist assembled a house in a Los Angeles neighborhood from scratch.) This range of utilitarian objects extends both to the furniture and to carefully considered accessories.
Take, for instance, the kitchen. Small blue and green glass bowls sit atop the room's refrigerator, which has doors painted an eye-pleasing powder blue and magnets affixing a childlike drawing to it. Nearby is an "island" counter topped with a rather baroque espresso/cappuccino machine, situated beneath a trio of hand-blown glass hanging lamps. The room is fleshed out by the realistic, highly detailed photomural that wraps the walls. The Formica counter and a set of four framed sketches for the room are from a 1992 piece that bears the irresistible title of my small kitchen, 600 square feet, 600 dollars a month, my friend Harry Relis, Silverlake, I wish I would have done it this way the first time, what a beautiful fucking view.
Around the corner are spaces bearing sleek, minimalist chairs and tables with wavy contours, more hanging lamps, and a cabinet with folding doors that reveal a wine rack within. And throughout the exhibition, the exterior and dividing walls are covered with Pardo's paintings, which, ironically, rarely rise above merely decorative. Mostly abstract, they would have a hard time generating much enthusiasm in another context, while the artist's so-called furniture, on the other hand, might be capable of inspiring virtually endless discussion.
By this point, the skeptics who have stuck with the show are probably shaking their heads, rolling their eyes, and concluding wearily, "So this is what the art world has come to." Or again, more bluntly: "How and why is this art?" Aha! This last bit begins to get at what Pardo is up to, which is to pose questions about the categories to which we assign art, the ways in which we distinguish between everyday objects and the ones we deem — arbitrarily? — art.
I kept thinking of the great Dadaist and cosmic prankster Marcel Duchamp, who in 1917 took an upturned men's urinal, signed it "R. MUTT," labeled it Fountain, and displayed it as sculpture. It was art because he said it was art, and the art world was never the same. (A 2004 survey of 500 artists and historians named it "the most influential artwork of the 20th Century.") Pardo's rooms and the furniture and objects they contain are likewise art because he has designated them so, the better to stimulate aesthetic argument.
The argument reaches crescendo pitch by the time you reach "House" 's bedroom section, which really starts to mess with your mind. The space's centerpiece is a full bedroom suite consisting of a bed, a pair of nightstands, a dresser with mirror, a bureau, and a painting. The solidity of these objects makes it clear that they're fully functional, and yet, as the exhibition's modest but excellent brochure points out, "The bulk of a bedroom set makes it impractical as a precious object." (The brochure is like a drastically condensed version of the show's impressively comprehensive catalog.)
Further complicating matters is the presence, in the same large, open space, of a trio of "mattresses" on the floor titled Wolfram, Max, and Max jr. (all from 1997). By contrast, this bedding is made of colored cardboard that would undoubtedly collapse if you tried to lie on it, so that the mattresses, and their accompanying pillows, are useless except as art objects. From the brochure: "These works are not functional, but symbolic beds."
Pardo takes such thinking to another extreme back in the main living-room area. Here, again, functional and nonfunctional have at each other. The basics of Le Corbusier's classic modern chair and love seat are here, although instead of gleaming steel tubing and leather upholstery, the artist substitutes copper tubing and leaves off the upholstery so that the items work only as sculpture, not as furniture. Nearby, however, is another Le Corbusier chair, this one voluptuously overdone with plush cushions. It's every bit as functional as the sleek wooden rocking chair a few feet away.
But the living room is really dominated by the mixed-media sculpture Portrait of George Porcari (1995), which consists of four adjacent five-level bookshelves filled with books and a few other miscellaneous objects. Porcari was acquisitions librarian at California's Art Center School of Art and Design when Pardo studied there, and the artist worked as his assistant from 1986 to 1996. The sculpture is both a private library and a very public portrait of that library's owner.
At first, the work seems randomly assembled (it's not), and then you begin to notice that books by the same author are grouped together, including multiple works by Vladimir Nabokov, Milan Kundera, Joseph Heller, Norman Mailer, Camille Paglia, Gore Vidal, and many, many others. There are smatterings of poetry, classic literature, biographies, and books on cinema. There are also groupings based on subject matter, with the art and photography section including works by or on Picasso, Richard Estes, de Kooning, Magritte, Vermeer, Titian, Cindy Sherman, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Edward Weston, and Dennis Hopper, to cite just a few of the most recognizable names.
For any book lover or avid reader, I suppose, perusing the collection is eerily intimate. Someone's library, whether it's books, CDs, or DVDs, says a lot about the person, and we may feel privileged to gain access to such knowledge, or we may feel as if we have violated a deeply personal space. For my part, after noticing what seemed to be an uncanny overlap between Porcari's collection and my own, I felt a creeping sense of being on display myself. "Jorge Pardo: House" got under my skin and stayed there for days. It's that kind of show.