Hammer Museum, LA
15 June - 1 September 2013
Review by Siofra McSherry
Opening with a bristling exclamation point sculpture and a trompe l’oeil formica cube resembling a table, this first major retrospective since 1988 claims to introduce Artschwager to a new generation. The artist trained as a baby photographer and furniture maker before making his first non-functional objects in his early forties, inspired by a children’s television programme in which an antisocial child hammered pieces of wood together instead of doing something useful. Artschwager took this ‘whispered instruction’ and produced Project Zero, a delightfully antisocial object made of suspended planks that declines to be in any way practical.
Multiple streams of Artschwager’s practice are represented here, including minimalist furniture-like sculptures that adapt the techniques and materials of mass production, repetitive sketched and painted studies of household objects, monochrome Celotex canvases that transpose photographs into painted objects, landscape paintings, and the artist’s omnipresent blps. Curator Jennifer Gross thoughtfully places this rambling practice into the context of pop art and minimalism, and establishes a useful analogy with a formalist etude for piano, in which a single motif mutates through dozens of related iterations. This image elucidates the artist’s obsessive ‘door, mirror, table, basket, rug, window’ series of sketches, paintings and sculptures dating from the seventies. Artschwager’s formalism defamiliarises the domestic and forces the viewer to decode trompe l’oeil surfaces and angles set within ordinary objects.
Oak is overlaid with formica, a mechanical replication of the wooden surface. Mass-produced materials are placed in the service of custom sculptural work, producing a pop aesthetic that belies the formal ingenuity of pieces such as ‘Door II’ (1992). A cartoonishly scaled door rests in the corner of the gallery, confusing the viewer with formica shadow illusions substituting 2D for 3D surfaces. The light-heartedness of such pieces is modulated in the darker, fetishistic ‘Double Dinner’ (1988), which sets rubberized horsehair, one of the artist’s favourite materials, into a heavy-set dining table with two chairs. The scale is a little off; the lines are too square and bulky to be elegant, and the horsehair stripes are vaguely repellent. The sculpture is a disturbing talisman for domestic discomfort.
Artschwager’s work obsesses over, riffs on, isolates and foregrounds the formal qualities of the ordinary world around him. Punctuation marks are exploded in scale and wittily defamiliarised. The iconic exclamation point makes its way into the exhibition’s title, formica exclamation points are wittily placed around a gallery entryway, and the artist’s signature blp creates a new punctuation mark of gnomic intent. The pill-shaped objects appear in rubberized horsehair, mirror, wood, formica and many other materials. In documented projects, the artist sent out stickers and stencils with the shape and encouraged others to put them up around Seattle and Utrecht.
The show also demonstrates Artschwager’s importance as a painter, with close ties to European Post-Impressionists such as Pierre Bonnard. The artist used paint to distance the mechanical experience of news and photography, and substitute a personal, time-consuming process that slowed down both the transmission of the image and the viewer’s interpretation of it. His choice of patterned Celotex boards (a commercial building material) as his canvas further disrupted the representative qualities of the image, a breakdown of function and representation that meets its ideal subject matter in the Destruction series, presenting the demolition of Atlantic City’s Traymore Hotel on 7 April, 1972. Artschwager’s work takes fast, mass media materials’photography, Celotex, formica’and disrupts their manifestations, imposing rigorous design, artisanal process and illusion to slow down manufacture and arrest the viewer in their encounter with the ordinary.