“Modern Living: Objects and Context” at The Carnegie was co-curated by Matt Distel and BLDG, a Covington-based design firm, and explores “the intersection and conflation of design and art objects,” according to The Carnegie’s Exhibitions Director Distel. To this end, the exhibition is divided into two parts. Objects are installed as art in the first-floor gallery space while upstairs similar products by the same makers are shown in “simulated live/work situations.” Distel explains, “This (was a) conscious decision to examine where and how sculpture and design overlap or diverge,” and to put them in context: art in a clean gallery space, and design in rooms with the invitation to sit and touch.
Distel says The Carnegie show was “precipitated by a tremendous influx of design build firms into this area brought on, in part, by the increase in restaurants, bars, breweries, offices, and retail environments (aka shops, author’s comment) in downtown Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky.” Keith Benjamin, Brush Factory, Taryn Cassela, CVG Made, Grainwell (the sisters Christine, Melyssa, and Michelle Kirn), Colin Klimesh, Matt Lynch, Matthew Metzger, Such + Such, Chris Vorhees, and Ampersand fit that nomenclature and are included in the show.
Distel and BLDG’s thesis is nothing new. The Carnegie show covers much of the territory already explored by the Contemporary Arts Center’s (CAC) 2013 exhibition “The Living Room,” curated by Justine Ludwig, former assistant curator and at the time adjunct curator at the CAC. The show featured four design-build companies and filled a loft-like space (92’ x 17.5’) with vignettes of “living spaces.” The press release explained Ludwig’s thesis:
Delicately tethering themselves to Cincinnati’s rich history of decorative craft production and skilled artisanal trades, these artists have forged their own paths by breaking new ground, each taking dynamic new approaches in redefining traditional process and traditional spaces. They remix materials and content, inject whimsy and subversion into the aesthetic conversation, creating natural and unnatural tensions that draw the viewer in and beg for closer inspection.
That statement also fits “Modern Living” nearly perfectly save for connecting with Cincinnati’s decorative arts heritage, which includes furniture making and woodcarving and can be seen in the Cincinnati Art Museum’s Cincinnati Wing.
To bolster the ties between The Carnegie’s “Modern Living” and “The Living Room” at the CAC, let me start with Such + Such, founded in 2011 by Alex Aeschbury Zach Darmanian-Harris, and Mike Nauman who is no longer involved, appears in both exhibitions and with the same piece, albeit in different stages of completion. Bear, 2013, is a “bearskin rug” carved in North American walnut, which plays with the notion of the softness. In the CAC exhibition, it’s in a roughed-out state and is displayed on the floor. In Kentucky it’s on the wall like a relief sculpture although a real bearskin rug might also be hung on a wall as decor.
As stated by the curators, The Carnegie’s first floor gallery is devoted to the presentation of objects as art. This must be why Ampersand’s witty Punk Soap Dishes (available for purchase for $29) are displayed on a plinth, their sculptural qualities emphasized in a way that placing them on a pedestal, table, or shelf would not. Carl Andre’s floor sculptures can’t be referenced here since his plates are always placed directly on the floor. The powdered-coated aluminum objects are 4.5” long, 3” wide, and a touch over .5” tall and covered with pyramidal studs. On Ampersand’s website (ampersandbrand.com), the Punk Soap Dishes are touted as “The best damn soap dish around. Ditch slimy soap and elevate your bar; Punk’s pyramidal studs allow airflow underneath your soap, keeping it dry and helping it last.” But the company, founded by Tim Karoleff in 2011, suggests other uses: “Sponge Rest, Trivet, Paperweight, Wall Tile, or Cool Spikey Thing.” The last would confirm it as an object to be contemplated not used. I can walk and chew gum at the same time, so I can contemplate that quite well when I’m brushing my teeth as it sits on my bathroom sink.
There’s certainly no question that Matt Lynch’s LACKtose Tolerant, 2014-2015, is an object to be contemplated; it’s a completely useless object, I mean, sculpture. He has stacked pizza boxes on top of a small off-the-shelf IKEA table. The piece articulates Lynch’s aesthetic focus of reimagining “domestic objects and environments as locations for subtle absurdity. Common objects are reconstructed using uncommon materials or camouflaged as new items,” according to Distel. This dizzying tower of pizza boxes, all slightly askew, reaches upward into the atrium and activates the space in a wonderful way. It obviously recalls Brancusi’s Endless Columns, but describing the Romanian sculptor’s truly iconic works as “Minimal” (cap M) in the informative handout is a misuse of the term.
On a much smaller scale, Brancusi also came to mind looking at the turned-wood candlesticks by Brush Factory, founded by Rosie Kovacs and Hayes Shanesy in 2009. With the company’s “waste not, want not” attitude, these decorative objects are made from wood leftover from their larger furniture pieces. As much as I liked these candlesticks, they were a tad too reminiscent of the Danish modern versions that I had in the 1970s. Too bad I didn’t keep them.
Tradition is alluded to in CVG Made’s work, which is “grounded in a deep understanding of traditional, early American furniture. . . . They utilize these early designs as a point of departure to create innovative and experiential bodies of work that feel simultaneously rooted in conceptual art, interactive sculpture, and functional furniture making,” as the informative brochure states. Principals Steven Sander and Aaron Miley have the background as both are products of the furniture design program at Herron School of Art and Design, Indiana University. A 2012 collaboration on a table proposal by Sander and Miley led them two years later to launch CVG Made.
Now where in the furniture-making tradition CVG Made’s 2015 Platform Bed fits I’m not sure. It appears to be made from salvaged wood, perhaps from a barn, and looks like a crude rendition of a bi-fold wood futon frame that folds down from a sitting position to flat for a bed. Their Platform Bed lacks that capability.
The “whimsy and subversion” Ludwig refers to in her statement can also be seen in “Modern Living.” Matt Lynch’s 2015 Hose Menorah is made of hose fittings; instead of holding candles, it spouts water. Ampersand’s powder-coated steel Flim Flam Lawn Ornaments, 2015, evoke those pink flamingoes that strut across golf-course green lawn in suburbia. Ampersand has reimagined them as line drawings in air and look like they might have been made from coat hangers. You can find humor in Chris Vorhees’ Blob Floorlamp, 2015, acrylic and LED light, where the light is literally on the floor and looks as if it just melted there. I did find the color a bit off-putting – urine yellow. But that may be because I have a puppy.
While hardly a unique concept, what “Modern Living” brings to the table is a few more designers and artists playing with function, which is not a bad thing.
–Karen S. Chambers
“Modern Living: Objects and Context” through February 16, 2016. Hours: Wed.-Sat., noon-5 p.m. The Carnegie, 1028 Scott Blvd., Covington, KY 41011, 859-491-2030, www.thecarnegie.com.