Lever House, New York
May 3 – June 9, 2017
In her essay “The Arts and Crafts Movement in America,” tracing the spread of the international movement from Europe to the U.S., Monica Obniski¹ draws connections between the movement’s emergence and the birth of industrialization in England, outlining the socialist leanings, artistic breakthroughs, and global impact on associated art communities over the years. Highlighting works by seventy artists in the second-floor office space of the Lever House, the exhibition MIDTOWN takes a keen look at the heart of this movement, celebrating work that exists at a junction between art and craft, and addressing longstanding questions of value, design, function, and authorship.
Where Jack Rogers Hopkins’s Dining Set (1980s) pairs detailed design and intricate handiwork with functionality, numerous artists subvert traditional notions of functionality by deploying materials in ways that render the objects unusable: Vito Acconci’s seating spaces fashioned from mylar, painted wood and vinyl; Anton Alvarez’s thread-wrapped furniture; Thomas Barger’s paper-made chairs and baskets; Urs Fischer’s foam recliner; multi-media furnishings by Max Lamb and Kwangho Lee, and Hannah Levy’s steel works. Andile Dyalvine’s serpentine stoneware clay pottery and R.M. Fisher’s electric-and-steel contraptions are cunningly designed to flout utility; the latter’s work, Bertha (1982), appears to depict a heart made out of galvanized steel, glass, wood, plastic, and electric lights—materials generally useful but here playing more symbolic roles as human emotions. Hanna Liden’s Luggage series is similarly provocative; backpacks crafted out of concrete, paint, and wood are robbed of their functional worth while simultaneously evoking (amidst general growing paranoia around security risks) somewhat ominous sentiments. Seemingly abandoned, they are strategically placed in pairs near pillars that appear to be important to the building’s structural integrity.
There is a subtle human presence in works throughout, such as Sarah Lucas’s readymade loungers, buckets, and stuffed tights suspended from the ceiling, and Luis Flores’s shifty-looking figures in You lost your gut and all of a sudden I’m ashamed of you (2017) which hide behind a pillar. Carly Mark’s Fat Shaming Birthday Cake (2016) stands as a masked mannequin in a plush birthday-cake suit, while two crouching figures made out of draped linen and resin hide in plain sight in Robert Morris’s Maybe They Won’t Find Out (2014 – 15).
“The Arts and Crafts movement did not promote a particular style, but it did advocate reform as part of its philosophy and instigated a critique of industrial labor; as modern machines replaced workers, Arts and Crafts proponents called for an end to the division of labor and advanced the designer as craftsman,” wrote Obniski. The continued relevance of this observation echoes fervently across MIDTOWN, which occupies vacant office space in the heart of Manhattan. In an age when technological development seems to be moving at a faster pace than anything else, the works on view offer a dystopian picture of a society in which man and machine seem to compete against one another for survival. Mannequins trapped in metal, such as in works by Jon Kessler and James Crosby, convey a kind of human despair and vulnerability in the face of such a clash, while works such as Huma Bhabha’s Unnatural Histories (2012), Barbara Chase-Riboud’s Black Obelisk #2 (2007), and Jarrod Beck’s Moonpeel (2017), offer representations of a world that seems to be almost post-human. Questions arise pertaining to the assignation of value, not between arts and crafts, but across humankind at large. And through its embrace of collaboration between artists and galleries and of the collaborative spirit of art-making practices, MIDTOWN offers valuable perspective on the need to re-evaluate our questionable priorities.
Rabia Ashfaque is a widely published writer, born and raised in Karachi, Pakistan. She received her MFA in Art Criticism and Writing from the School of Visual Arts in 2014.