Blur: Six Artists/Six Designers in Contemporary Practice

Shoulder Path

University of the Arts,
Hamilton and Arronson Galleries in Hamilton Hall 

By Jeffrey Bussmann

Through September 30


Before visiting Blur: Six Artists/Six Designers in Contemporary Practice I wondered, “Why this show and why now?”  Nothing today could be more pertinent to explore than polymorhpic practice, which not only seems more prevalent than ever in the arts, but also in the creative sector at large.  It is a challenge that everyone must navigate: excel at your specialty, but do not excel only at that one thing; invent other avenues and parallels.  Curators Mark Campbell (of UArts) and Mary Anne Friel (of RISD and formerly the Fabric Workshop) are not preoccupied with categorizing the individuals they selected for the show: Eve Bailey, Laura Frazure, Todd Gilens, Andrea Gaydos Landau, Virgil Marti, Will McHale, Don Miller, Jenny Sabin, Anne Schaefer, Alexandra Ullrich-Schmidt, Silvano Sole, and Mika Tajima.  In the gallery notes a short bio illuminates where on the art/design spectrum each one falls.  Each of the twelve selected contributors has only one piece, or in a few cases two, spread over two galleries as representations of how they “blur” the distinctions between art and design.  The work on display shows their cross-disciplinary métiers to varying degrees.

Before I saw the show, Campbell said that he and Friel view cross-disciplinary activity as firmly established in contemporary practice.  If we take this view for granted, the curatorial basis of forming a show around “blurring” is generic—it becomes a standard group show that showcases people who are already within a curator’s circle of acquaintances, if not friends.  However, I am not entirely of this mind.  Blur functions as a chance to take stock of twelve artists/designers who are at all career stages, from emerging to firmly-ensconced, and who exemplify why “blurring” has become the new norm.

In our emails back and forth, Campbell reminded me that if the role (at least in part) of the contemporary artist is to comment on contemporary life, “design disciplines offer a number of interesting pathways, with their emphasis on social use and function, for the contemporary artist to be in the world, more centrally placed and actively engaged.”  Conversely, the contemporary designer has enthusiastically assumed the challenge of appropriating and innovating formal expression, which may have once been seen as the visual artist’s dominion.

It is beyond the scope of a review for me to carefully examine each work in Blur, so I will begin with the individual whose career I know best and whose stately pieces are so often examined for playing with fine art versus interior design.  Virgil Marti’s contributions to Blur bear the mark of his rummaging through Philadelphia Museum of Art storerooms for last fall’s Set Pieces at ICA.  And as in the VIP Room wallpaper in Philagrafika 2010, his surfaces have a reflective, distorting quality.  He has provided loaded titles, Nightwatch and Vesper, which call to mind a bevy of ideas: planet- and star-gazing, Greco-Roman mythologyRembrandt, and Casino Royale.  The design aspect of the pieces is overt; but my assumption as a viewer that these pieces are confounding mirrors was changed by the curators’ suggestion that they are “monochromatic paintings”.

An astral ambience in the gallery was reinforced by the sound bleed from Andrea Gaydos Landau’s One Night Sky.  I know Landau (a former colleague) more for her skill as a project coordinator at the Fabric Workshop than for her own handiwork.  I never fail to be fascinated by the comparison between how artists apply their aptitude to the work of another artist and what they do on their own. For example, at the Fabric Workshop Landau worked wonders with industrial felt to realize Tristan Lowe’s monumental Mocha Dick, which required great dexterity to manipulate the material into resembling a whale’s supple flesh.  With One Night Sky, she gives lace-cut painted fabric a dry, fragile texture not unlike peat moss.  What I liked best was how she intertwined speakers and earbuds into the latticework, weaving a constellation that mirrored the ethereal, tinkling soundtrack.  Is it a painting, a tapestry, or an elaborate trellis for delivering sound?

I felt about Jenny Sabin’s work the way I generally feel about architectural maquettes and schematics: they encapsulate the ideas inherent to the design, but are listless when compared to the full scale structures they represent.  Unless one is an architect, they are too technical to inspire wonder.  Besides, the actual Greenhouse and Cabinet of Future Fossils is now constructed and on view at the American Philosophical Society Museum—why not see it there?

The inclusion of Mika Tajima’s video Today is Not a Dress Rehearsal gives off a similarly muted effect.  For a performance that appears to have been so dynamic in the flesh, the video, which is simultaneously the documentation and the fruit of its high-production-value filming, is of feeble impact. Again, it is more instructive in its transparent aestheticizing (to an almost fetishistic point, reinforced by the droning New Humans soundtrack) of sets, equipment, lighting, and cinematic techniques than in engaging viewers as a piece unto itself. On a smallish LCD television, it reads like any competently made clip you might find on video sharing sites shot with widely accessible prosumer grade HD cameras. Across the gallery, Philosophers and Idlers offers a much more direct and engaging window into Tajima’s toying with modular units and Bauhaus design.

I felt most favorably towards Eve Bailey’s Shoulder Path, a sculptural piece and a photograph of a performance using the sculptural object.  Bailey brings the sculpture alive, something like IKEA furniture crossed with a berserk pommel horse, as an apparatus for dissecting the stages of a back somersault.  There is more than a bit of Eadweard Muybridge in Bailey’s plotting of locomotion, but a key difference is her costume and how its orange sleeves and markings align with the form of the apparatus.  The shapes of her body frozen in motion play like a physical semaphore language. Looking back to the sculpture in the gallery I could appreciate how its design was dictated by her body rolling through space, as if she had left impressions in damp clay.  Then again, it could just as seamlessly pass for a cutting-edge daybed in the home of some very design-forward person.

The stealthy strength of blurring boundaries allows an artist/designer to reach a wider audience and broaden their impact for a greater cause. Todd Gilens’ Endangered Species series, documented by photographs in the show, consists of San Francisco city omnibuses wrapped with photographs of endangered species indigenous to the Bay Area. Surely, these are meant to raise awareness of an environmental issue. More cleverly, though, Gilens subverts typical expectations of advertisement laden bus exteriors even as he juxtaposes tranquil animal life in nature with a manmade vehicle of mass transit spewing exhaust out its backside.

In all, Blur gave me pause to reflect: do distinctions between artist and designer, as well as their respective outputs, matter so much in contemporary practice?  The title of the exhibition still enshrines those labels, almost pitting one against the other.  But in viewing the show, even though it would be exaggeration to say that traditionally-held boundaries are obliterated, the ambiguity is thorough.  So I return to my initial question: “Why and why now?”  Does a show such as this tell us something that we already know, or does considering the ways that artists and designers “blur” point to further avenues forward?

Jeffrey Bussmann works at the Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania.  He is currently researching Brazilian cultural organizations for his master’s thesis in Arts Administration at Drexel University.  He also writes for his blog Post-Nonprofalyptic.