In the 1960s, Tony Smith made geometric sculpture that was “not an object … not a monument,” and it is worth pondering what such an in-between scale might be in the domestic sphere. Perhaps it is something that is not as essential as a bed or teacup, but an intermediary between the utilitarian and the transcendent. Such types of object might include many things, and in the world of ceramics the cliché is the vase.
The pretension of using a hierarchy of nomenclature to describe and discriminate between pots has a long and humorous history. The autodidact Josiah Wedgwood famously sought advice from Sir William Chambers, architect to royalty, on whether he ought to describe his pots as vases or urns. Chambers patronizingly replied that there were enormous distinctions between the two but that he hadn’t the time to educate the potter as he was on the way out the door to wait on the queen. The question in Wedgwood’s mind was what implications Greek pots carried in their ornament.
To put the question in contemporary terms, Were the pots for humanity to inter and preserve gray ashes or display colorful blossoms? This is the strange and rollicking arena that British artist Richard Slee calls “the great indoors,” the land of closets, pets, and toys that holds our deepest and most human affectations, signs and signifiers that map out gender, class, and identity. A historian might group all these ligaments of domesticity such as ashtrays, soap dishes, umbrella stands, and coat hooks under the term material culture, and thus avoid the snobbish hang-ups of aesthetes of yesteryear whose worrying over whether an object was labeled craft, art, or design was in fact a primal yearning for status. A third term to map this terrain of the house is décor, a curious word that in the seventeenth century meant comeliness and beauty but by the twentieth century had become associated with theatricality and self-conscious artificiality. Perhaps it is time to rescue this term from the stage and from homemakers’ magazines for use in art history, and use it to refute entirely the Modernist (and formalist) distaste for theatrical sculpture that demonstrably revealed the messiness of making things in real time.
Installation, Marie T. Hermann and Anders Ruhwald, Echo Chambers. Schein-Joseph International Museum of Ceramic Art, NY, 2012. Photos courtesy the artists.
Marie Torbensdatter Hermann and Anders Ruhwald mostly build objects that are suggestive of useful furnishings, but they are a type of “metabolic décor,” objects referencing familiar forms and functions within an almost metamorphic process of breakdown and reassembly. Their work stands on spindly legs like an Edwardian ashtray of yesteryear, hugs the walls, dangles from the ceiling, or sits on tables. The artists operate in Rosalind Krauss’s “expanded field of sculpture” but it is a domestic field of play, an arena within arm’s length that is wonderfully intimate and tactile. Because these two artists engage engines of entropy in our society, moments when domestic forms fluoresce and then vanish, the ashtray’s moral decline and aesthetic abandonment are the perfect place to begin to understand their mode of form-giving, of building. The once-triumphant ashtray of yesteryear is also useful to understanding why this space is so ripe with potential. Is this the interval that Marcel Duchamp called the infrathin (inframince)? Or is the ashtray an exemplar of biorhythms in manners and fashions that Georges Perec called the “infra-ordinary”?
We half-recognize the bowl that Marie Torbensdatter Hermann throws on the wheel and the hand-modeled pylon Anders Ruhwald builds, but these objects disrupt the traditional categories of ceramic “vessels” and “sculpture.” The curious tension in their work is that the Modernist command to “make it new” is done and undone in a counter-intuitive and sometimes humorous vein. The artists craft specific objects that allude to a functional form or social habit but one deformed or gone astray. A commonality in their work is that both artists allude to the broad expanse of everyday furnishings and yet are committed to ceramics as a medium in which to explore the interval between refinement and anti-form. Looking at their work, it is worthwhile to ponder the ways a banal artifact can be a device to cope with disorder or an irrational sign that is safe only because it is kept behind closed doors, in the domestic lair.
“This transformation from a helpful and even sexy accessory to an anti-social signifier is an important trajectory to ponder at the dawn of the twenty-first century because it reveals a self-righteousness in our crusades to both embellish and purify our homes.”
The ashtray was once a socially acceptable object and a marker of civilization in any well-appointed hotel lobby. Now it has simply vanished, or worse yet, become taboo. In our current age of anti-smoking laws, body culture, and the slow food movement, the dainty bronze ashtray-on-stand and the ten-pound 1960s volcanic ceramic receptacle with parking spots for two dozen cigarettes are now outlaws, junk. Adolf Loos’s vehement rant on ornament as crime seems mild in comparison to the ways in which these tools to tidy up have themselves been expunged from the home and exiled to the trash dump or the lowest rungs of second-hand detritus. This transformation from a helpful and even sexy accessory to an anti-social signifier is an important trajectory to ponder at the dawn of the twenty-first century because it reveals a self-righteousness in our crusades to both embellish and purify our homes. Too often, we separate the rationale of modern housing from such lowly artifacts of everyday life when, in fact, doorknobs, chairs, and windows mark our daily processions and reinforce our sense of place. Domestic tools that suffer such a plight as the ashtray are as ephemeral as fashion, expiring at a rate beyond the grasp of the historian.
In order to look intently at a specific ashtray, let us turn to one made by Howard Kottler that has somehow evaded the fate of so many of its brethren and become adopted by the Schein-Joseph International Museum of Ceramic Art, the same venue where Ruhwald and Torbensdatter Hermann have installed their work. Kottler’s ashtray has climbed the rungs from the ordinary to the realm of art. (Quick, call the philosophers who police aesthetic hierarchies and taxonomies!) This is an instance that brings to mind Oscar Wilde’s advice to art students that “The definition should follow the work: the work should not adapt itself to the definition.” But wait, we might have a convenient category to staunch the energy of this wily artifact. The five-inch piece of handiwork, smooth and eccentrically ellipsoid, fits in the category of biomorphic abstraction, so maybe we can just file it in that aesthetic drawer and pretend it doesn’t destabilize our world. The blue glaze is a pebbly matte monochrome like so much colorful Russel Wright tableware–anemic or seductively tempered, depending on your aesthetic camp – and yet inside a recumbent stick figure has drowned, so maybe we do need to call an ambulance to trigger our empathy, get us off our complacent categorization of ashtrays as incapable of rising to the level of art. There is a sadness to the figure, especially when one sees that Kottler titled it Jonah and the Whale. Kottler’s ashtray fuses myth and narrative into the infra-ordinary with a gentle sleight of hand, making décor into an existential crisis.
Echo Chambers, NY, 2012
The crisis of empathy arises when this ashtray suddenly seems tricky, when all the talk about Sung standards or “vessels” from the last century becomes useless, because the ashtray isn’t really a form with an interior volume. It deprives us of talking about “bowl-ness” or any other sacred characteristics of vessels. Ashtrays chuck Modernism’s other defining tenets into the waste bin – they are not autonomous, they cannot be original, and they afford very little space to pioneer. Plus, they need ornament: nubs to invite cigarettes to nestle into, color to help us spot them, and just a little something to make it at least a bit groovy. These are like Brutalist buildings in that they still need doors to let people inside.
In an age when image-making has diminished our appreciation for sculptural forms, weights, and material qualities, Torbensdatter Hermann and Ruhwald ask us to look at that point where tactility intersects with the socially dysfunctional and functional in the infra-ordinary domestic sphere. So many frustrations, such as breaking a shoelace, cleaning the hairs off of a mussel gathered from the seashore, or trying to mop the last of a viscous yolk off a plate with a fork are all potentially exquisite operations to realize just how temporally located we are in a historical landscape and within our contemporary lifestyles. When our fingers search a raw chicken’s shoulder blades, we understand skeletal structure through physical empathy. At the Bauhaus in 1920s Germany, tactility exercises, or Tastübungen, were valued as ways of communing with materiality. Manual exploration with wire or colored glass was considered an important process to nurture empathy and intuition, and artificial materials were considered to be as capable of leading to transcendence as was “nature.”
The exhibition’s title, Echo Chamber, is a term generally encountered in a purely auditory sense, either as a digital recording trick or an architectural space distinctive for its natural reverberation, such as a cathedral dome or sepulchral tunnel. But it can also be a wonderfully sculptural space that engenders new social relations. Going into the subterranean passages of Grand Central Station as a teenager, I enjoyed whispering into the wall outside the Oyster Bar with my friend Gary diagonally across the room and listening to him — the Guastavino tiles permitted us to rhapsodize sophomorically sotto voce amid the rush-hour din. To ponder a similar spatial sonic detour, imagine taking a trip to the spiral mines in Syracusa, either in person or via Thucydides’s narration, to imagine the rebellion of the enslaved Athenians being overheard and thwarted because of the amplification of sound waves. If we listen to them, echoes get us out of our heads, and often by benignly introducing a modicum of self-consciousness and self-awareness.
Torbensdatter Hermann and Ruhwald work in terms of variation and reiteration, call and response. They appear to be attuned to the idealist rhetoric of fifty years ago, specifically when Scandinavian design was valorized as a mythic ethos. They are also aware of the ways that hollow advertisements and sham politics resonate in our own time. It is noteworthy that several artistic tactics in the exhibition are not entirely novel, even if they seem so. These artists are fully conscious of historical turns in the domestic space and also of older artistic negotiations. Ken Price lit candles in his “death shrines” in his landmark Happy’s Curios exhibition in 1977, and if Ruhwald uses the candle in a more tactile and isolated manner, temporal clarity and urgency are still conjured. Richard DeVore made pots with false bottoms and hidden interiors, and Torbensdatter Hermann does, too, but without referencing human anatomy. She places utility within parenthetical marks.
These two artists have practices that can be seen as more Scandinavian than American, for they are comfortably engaged in ceramic craft, with no apologies for materiality. Torbensdatter Hermann brings us close to a manual space where our fingers crawl slowly, something in between setting a table and peeling a tightly wrapped onion. Ruhwald’s lamps are like the thought bubbles above cartoon characters’ heads yet inverted, as if the light bulb were itself engaged in an existential dilemma of wondering what it wants to become. The self-referential nature of these artifacts, and their willingness to stray into the Schein-Joseph International Museum of Ceramic Art with its Palladian windows, elegant coped ceiling, brass chandeliers, and non-functional hearth, embodies a postmodern playfulness and willingness to forgo the self-righteousness of autonomy. Yet the artifacts are also trying to make it new, boldly playing with the mandate that artists exist to invent form.
“No object is so ugly that, under certain conditions of light and shade, or proximity to other things, it will not look beautiful; no object is so beautiful that, under certain conditions, it will not look ugly.”
Marie Torbensdatter Hermann’s ensembles of pot-like forms appeal to the fingers in this way — they ask to be picked up. By binding the plinths and some nail-like forms with silk thread, she leads our eyes to apprehend the forms at the slow speed that such delicacy requires. The material shift conveys poetic elisions. The filament sutures the sculpture, binds, and tugs on the form– these are actions that only thread can do. Swatches of color introduce other tactile experiences into our consciousness. The striations echo the lines of objects made on the wheel. They also introduce color without its becoming ornament. They reinforce a tool-like quality, as if some coil forms were nails momentarily resting before scraping into some other form once again. One sign of entropy in this décor is that distinctions fade between nails and dental tools, light bulbs, and pears.
Anders Ruhwald’s candles and tassels introduce temporal conditions in important ways, too, but operate on the scale of furniture, things we would be more likely to hoist than to cradle. Explaining the way that he intended his installation to engage the pre-existing conditions of the Schein-Joseph Museum, Ruhwald stated that “the surveillance camera becomes part of how you take in the mirrors and is part of the meaning of the piece.” This sculpture addresses both such authoritarian mechanisms and the ways we assemble or dissemble vanity. Ruhwald’s green frames demand that we walk through the room, that we negotiate his subtle gradation in color and tone. They play with their own appearance of being cumbersome and achieving levity.
The term “metabolic” refers to the breakdown of food and its transformation into energy, and each of these objects is in a process of breaking apart or slipping into some liminal zone. Perhaps the domestic sphere is suffering Ruhwald’s furniture, or Torbensdatter Hermann’s shelves of manual weights are indexing an indigestion brought upon the world by human overreach. The thrown forms that Torbensdatter Hermann has deformed are reminiscent of bite marks, and the intimate surface is reminiscent of Janine Antoni’s gnawed chocolate but on a domestic level: the revulsion here is akin to sitting down at a stranger’s desk and picking up a chewed plastic pen. Torbensdatter Hermann avoids the pretension of Antoni’s artifacts. She is not against Minimalism. The context of material culture opens up a more universal sphere of disgust and tactile associations. Ruhwald’s series of dangling green frames hang at window-height but offer no picturesque vista. They run alongside the museum’s windows and suggest that there is no view outside. There is only an interior world. The subtle gradation of green in the clay frames sustains an autonomous illumination that lyrically fights against the windows – but we need the room’s fenestration in order to discern that Ruhwald’s frame is a domestic interval. His color-field of frames is contoured to the human body in the same manner that a road still carries in its dimensions the width of the horse and carriage.
Ashtrays, soap dishes, and umbrella stands occupy infra-ordinary spaces, and it is in such fallow margins and peripheries that reinvention can find rich nutrients. Metabolism is a twofold process, comprising catabolism, the breakdown of substances, and anabolism, the buildup of new proteins. The wondrous realm of contemporary decorative arts spans this arena, where all places to perch one’s body or rest one’s eyes are malleable and subject to continuous reinvention. Should you think this resurrection of the ashtray to be an exercise in contemporary muddy relativism, think again on the brilliance of Oscar Wilde’s words, “No object is so ugly that, under certain conditions of light and shade, or proximity to other things, it will not look beautiful; no object is so beautiful that, under certain conditions, it will not look ugly.” Wilde grasped the dialectical relationship between beauty and ugliness, and that we need both in order to have either. The work of Torbensdatter Hermann and Ruhwald reminds us that we need the vagaries of metabolic décor to sustain multiple personalities in our homes, to activate the places where we secretly inhabit cocoons and thrones in quick succession, each of us meandering within our own little kingdoms of the mind.
This essay owes a debt to my effervescent scholarly friends Mònica Gaspar Mallol and Glenn Adamson and their collegial banter that erases the distinction of geographical distance and eases isolation. It is with pleasure that I confess that not all of these thoughts are my own. I also want to thank Susan Kowalczyk for inviting me to curate this exhibition and for placing a high value both on my research and the need to produce this exhibition catalogue. Both Susan and the artists have made this endeavour a pleasure.