This post discusses the exhibition Glorious Estate which deals with ideas around the built-environment, found objects, alternative ways of living, and the legacy of utopian architecture. First published by Allotrope Editions 2012.

A. C. StephensC. Wright

At Bruno Glint Gallery the visitor becomes an anthropologist. Entering the cobbled mews and climbing a rusty staircase, we come across a space transformed. Fetishes of some post-apocalyptic society cover the walls, a mysterious structure of unknown ritual-use stands in our midst. This is ‘Glorious Estate’, the gallery’s latest exhibition, in which artists Anna Chrystal Stephens, Keef Winter, and Carla Wright explore late-modernity through its physical detritus.

Keef Winter’s sculpture of plywood, pine, industrial insulation and black plastic film is a combination of precision and roughness. The piece is composed of three hinged panels, one of which features triangular facets forming an irregular, upturned pyramid. In contrast, the other panels of the sculpture are made up of dented industrial foam and ply. The resultant form, roughly L-shaped, is inscribed with stains and roughly painted here and there. It is at once a refined exploration of three-dimensions and a piece of chaotic maverick DIY.

Like Winter, Anna Chrystal Stephens adopts an expressive somewhat anarchistic approach to construction, and her wall-mounted assemblages are built from a variety of found materials. In ‘Survivalism’ patterned textiles are stretched over frames to form screens, the apparently haphazard combination of materials evoking the structures of refugee camps or new-age settlements. Attached to this, a pole supports a totem of tangled wire adorned with bright, synthetic-string. A length of silk draped over the totem partially obscures it, perhaps an act of deference to its mystic power. Stephens’ two other pieces also feature silk digitally-printed with images of twigs and plastic stacking boxes. There is a sense of subversion in the combination of a material associated with luxury and objects that are normally considered too mundane to be worthy of notice.

In Carla Wright’s works a certain clarity of form, geometry and use of materials (including safety glass and oak) combine in an unmistakeable reference to modernism. It is a particularly English type of mid-20th Century sentiment that brings to mind Eric Lyons’ ‘Span Housing’, Denys Lasdun, and Ercol furniture. The translation of these icons of utility into pure aesthetic objects could be read as an implicit critique of their practical value, although there is something simultaneously celebratory in the elegant lines of Wright’s sculptures notably in ‘Concerns of the living interacting with the dead stuff of buildings’.

Discarded materials are transformed into objects of veneration in an exhibition which at its core, is an exploration of ideology. The notion of planned modernity is evoked in references to the stark edifices of modernist architecture, while the utopianism of the commune is explored in the work of Anna Chrystal Stephens. But despite this optimism (or perhaps in reaction to it) the spectres of industrial decline haunt the show, a malevolent dystopian spirit amongst the fragile beauty of the art objects. In the dialectic of modernity versus anti-modernity, and industrially produced versus handmade, the exhibition explores the shifting ground of design practice in the 20th and 21st centuries. More than the art object in contemporary discourse, it is the contested nature of the design object and of industrial production which forms the basis of this show. In that sense, it is a ‘To the Finland Station’ (Wilson 1940) of visual culture, exploring the trajectory of progressive applied art, but pointing out the limitations, romanticism and ultimate naivety of the doctrines that prevailed.

Jay McCauley Bowstead, Allotrope 2012.

Link to publication

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An essay on the significance of Raf Simons as a designer highlighting recurrent themes in his practice: modernity, androgyny and masculinity, and considering his historic appointment to Christian Dior.

Raf.pdf

The PDF (linked above) is in full RGB colour and is approximately  2.5 megabytes.

Screen Shot 2012-12-09 at 18.29.58Raf Simons for Dior Spring 13

Raf Simons Men’s Spring 13

Raf Simons for Christian Dior (prêt-à-porter) Spring 13

The Freud Museum’s current exhibition of video works by artists Mieke Bal and Michelle Williams Gamaker is entitled, rather cryptically, Saying It *. The exhibition features a range of video works displayed among the artefacts of the museum. Exploring themes of psychiatry, institutionalisation and (in my interpretation) the performance of gender, these pieces inhabit an ambiguous territory, at once reflecting and critiquing Freud’s seminal theories.

What is now the Freud Museum, a large but externally pretty ordinary suburban detached house in Hampstead, was the former home of Sigmund Freud and his immediate family*. It was the bolthole to which the Freuds fled in 1938 from Nazi annexed Austria. Despite their perilously late escape the Freuds were able to ship across the contents of the Vienna study, and so the ground-storey of the house (a corner of 1920s suburbia) is transformed incongruously into a fin de siècle, bohemian, Mitteleuropean milieu: Exotic ritual objects are sandwiched against heavy 19th century furnishings, chaises longues are draped in ornate tapestries; there are Ottoman and Persian brocades; endless urns, Egyptian statuettes and curios of every kind. Into this heady mix the video pieces of Mieke Bal and Michelle Williams Gamaker make their own curious interjection.

In my view, the installation of these video pieces was one of the strongest aspects of the show. Peeking from cupboards, between chair legs and beside the fabled couch, the flat-screens served as little interjections of modernity in their antiquated interiors. The action of the videos centred on the dramas of Sissi, a sufferer of schizophrenia with delusions of royal status, and a number of monitors explored distinct aspects of the patient’s identity: at times infantile and vulnerable, and at others condescending and supercilious. The pieces (shot in Dutch and subtitled) were performed in a rather melodramatic style by the actor playing Sissi, and in a somewhat more self-effacing manner by the psychiatrist/analyst character. For me, the exhibition added an additional resonance to the space, drawing out and somehow concretising the experiences of mental illness within the context of its analysis and theorisation. Nevertheless, I had some reservations: Were the clichéd nature of Sissi’s delusions a comment on the archetypes of madness or simply the result of laziness? What of the rather elaborate nature of her costume – was it a reflection on the performed nature of femininity, a critique of 19th Century bourgeois essentialism, or an aesthetic choice?

Perhaps, ultimately, the task of constructing a coherent artistic response to Freud’s theories is too great a work to complete within the modest terms of Bal and Williams-Gamaker’s exhibition. While it was an enjoyable, carefully curated, and skilfully made body of work, I was not always convinced by the credibility of the psychological narratives explored in Saying It. Nevertheless, the audacity and panache with which Bal and Williams-Gamaker approached their work is surely to be commended.

*The exhibition also includes works by the artist Renate Ferro, but as these are very different from the video works of Bal and Williams-Gamaker, and are relatively few, I have not included them in this discussion.

*Until 1982 Anna Freud, Sigmund’s daughter and an eminent child psychologist in her own right continued to live in the house.

This post originated in an exercise to define words with particular currency in art and design. A strong engagement with material and process is a recurrent theme in contemporary practice, perhaps in reaction to more conceptual approaches which previously dominated. I could have tackled Materiality in a number of ways, but chose to focus on the changing conceptions of  the material in a design context, with an emphasis on the impact of modernity. 

Materiality is a term I first came across in conversation with architects. Its meaning seemed to be a close relationship between the physical fabric of a space or structure and its ambience and form. In their usage, materiality was a shorthand to describe the rapport between textural, light absorbing, and chromatic qualities of a material, and its structural or protective functions. This expression of the word struck me as rich in a variety of ways: as a useful and meaningful concept in design; but also as an implicit ideal which situated architecture as a discipline in which the aesthetic, experiential, and functional are brought seamlessly together

 

Denys Lasdun, National Theatre 1976, Concrete Shuttering cast in situ asserts a strong sense of materiality.

Peter Zumthor, Luzi House 2002, A structure of solid wood enlivens the geometry of this custom built house.

The notion that good design represents a synthesis of the material, formal, functional and aesthetic is shared by many design disciplines, and is hardly new. But despite this common understanding, examples of poorly conceived products abound: forks that appear to have metal handles until the foil separates from the plastic, “wooden” desks who’s inner chipboard reveals itself after the slightest knock, smart shoes that revert to papier-mâché at the a drop of rain. Of course, inexpensive materials can serve their function beautifully, as plastic stacking chairs, flip-flops, and canvas bags demonstrate, but there is something that strikes us as fundamentally dishonest about a design form that suggests one usage but completely fails to deliver. In this context the relationship between materiality as a design methodology, and the less edifying reality that confronts us in the “real world” is perhaps worth exploring.

The centrality of material to modernist design is already evident in the Arts and Crafts movement, with its insistence on truth to materials and sense of social mission. These ideas were further elaborated through the Deutscher Werkbund, Wiener Werkstätte and in the seminal modernist fulcrums of the Bauhaus and Vkhutemas. As the practice of design grew and separated itself from the realm of applied arts and traditional crafts, new theories and approaches that emphasised the importance of material and mechanical processes emerged as a response to technological, social and political change.

Bauhaus designer Marcel Breuer, his cantilevered chair of1927 combines traditional wicker elements with industrial materials (tubular steel) permitting new possibilities of lightness and form.

While designers in the 20th Century became increasingly engaged with industrial materials and processes, theorists have often had an ambivalent relationship with the materiality of the design object, lacking the methodological and analytical skills to “read” objects with the rigour that they would apply to a text. An absence of understanding of the processes by which design objects are conceived, refined and manufactured not only inhibits the ability to interpret these features, but tempts the writer to overlook them altogether. For example, in Roland BarthesThe Fashion System’ the author completely avoids engaging in the analysis of real garments and outfits, preferring to conduct his interpretation of the fashion system, through syntactical deconstruction of the descriptive text beneath fashion photographs. It is hard to imagine a more singularly useless way of interpreting fashion, or understanding how garments actually communicate their identity.

In response to the inadequacies of existing philosophical, sociological and art historical readings of design objects, a new discipline of design history sought to develop a model of object analysis which would account for materiality in design as well as the subjectivity of the consumer/user or designer. The first courses in design history (for which I can find evidence) were developed in the late 1960s and early 1970s at The Pratt Institute and Parsons School of Design in the USA and at Hornsey School of Art/Middlesex Polytechnic and the RCA in the UK. The teaching of design history as a valid intellectual and academic pursuit (with its own concerns and methodologies) was highly contested, threatening as it did the hegemony of established art history.

‘Muriel Pemberton, Head of Fashion at St Martin’s, invited me to teach fashion history for four days a term. I soon realized that she was fighting an ideological battle with the Art History Department to be allowed to employ a dress historian at all. All students were required to take a generalised art history programme and none were taught any specialist histories, except for the fashion students.Lou Taylor, Fashion textiles and dress history a personal perspective.

 Today, a renewed concern for materiality in contemporary design practice suggests a reflection of the anxieties that first lead Arts and Crafts practitioners to assert the primacy of truth to materials. New technologies employing digital imaging allow designers to create previously unimaginable products at a cottage industry scale. At the same time, designers are increasingly concerned with the degradation of the environment, and with their wider responsibilities to society. These concerns connect to discourses around an increasingly contested model of consumption prevalent in the “developed world” and the exploitative nature of contemporary outsourced mass-production. In this context designers are engaging with notions of sustainability, reuse, and small-scale domestic manufacture: new uses of materials including recycled materials, organic and inorganic waste enlist both high technology and hand-craft in response to social and environmental problems.

Julene Aguirre-Bielschowsky’s ‘Nido’ product uses shells and grape stalks (both the result of food industry waste) to create a low-cost, modular insulating system for low-income homes in north Mexico. The manufacturing method is linked to the education system, providing paid working opportunities which encourage young people to stay in school.

A hunger for authenticity and quality is reflected in resurgence of craft, as designers reassess the possibilities of combining traditional materials with innovative processes. New materials and modes of production offer an opportunity to reassess and reconfigure contemporary design, reconnecting it to the social and political contexts from which (in the practice of bad design) it has sometimes become deracinated. As new technological, theoretical and economic models for design are developed, materiality becomes an increasingly dominant theme in debates on the discipline.

This post is about criticism of architecture and the built environment. I’m interested in the way that architecture arouses particular passions, including nostalgia, idealism and romanticism. What is the impact of these, often unspoken preoccupations, on the critique of the built form?  

Jonathon Meades’ article, which I refer to throughout, is so extreme in its inconsistency and subjectivity that you suspect that its primary aim was to elicit controversy. Nevertheless, many of the features of Meades’ piece, particularly its romanticisation of “liminal” spaces seem particularly current, and are worthy of some interrogation. 

For me Jonathon Meades’ article in The Guardian on the relationship between architecture, planning and the (urban) environment seemed to raise more questions than it answered.

www.guardian.co.uk

Meades’ central thesis is that there exists a problematic and unsatisfactory relationship between the urban environment and those tasked with designing the structures that inhabit it. This argument is initially convincing as Meades’ contends that buildings are designed to look impressive as drawings, models and photographs rather (implicitly) than to be experienced by those that use and interact with them. And he suggests that contemporary architects are encouraged to create buildings which operate as images or edifices, but which are abstracted both from the real world, and from their stated functions.

As the article continues, however, this central concept rather than being reinforced by pertinent examples, is instead diluted by tenuously linked personal bug-bears and bizarre pontification. On the one hand, the straw-man of planned utopia, whether new-town or garden city is stridently knocked down “ It doesn’t matter what idiom is essayed, it is the business of attempting to create places that defeats architects”. On the other hand, the value of beauty in unexpected places (specifically the Lee Valley) is asserted:

A writer, sees entropic beauty, roads to nowhere whose gravel aggregate is that of ad hoc second world war fighter runways, decrepit Victorian oriental pumping stations, rats, supermarket trolleys in toxic canals, rotting foxes, used condoms, pitta bread with green mould, polythene bags caught on branches and billowing like windsocks, greasy carpet tiles”.

The River Lee prior to the Olympics

Quite what relevance this fit of unrestrained prose might have to the practice of contemporary architecture is unclear: it’s certainly difficult to imagine how architects might incorporate rotting foxes and used condoms into their schemes. Having been brought up in Newham, I can’t help but feel that Meades’ celebration of the decrepitude of pre-Olympic Lee Valley smacks of a touristic and romanticised vision of poverty and post-industrial decline. While Westfield Shopping Centre may not represent the apotheosis of human artistic achievement, it does for many Newham residents represent an improvement on what came before.

More generally, what weakens Meades’ analysis (along with his propensity for unreflective romanticism) is his failure to conceive of architecture existing within practical, economic and sociological constraints which impinge on architects’ ability to create successful structures and places. How, for example, do transport infrastructure, choice of tenure, planning regimes and contractual arrangements impinge on the design of a scheme? While there will always exist buildings and schemes which “transcend” their function and circumstances, the lofty and poetic language Meades employs scarcely helps to understand what makes these works successful.

L’Unité d’Habitation

“Le Corbusier’s l’Unité d’Habitation instruct[s] us in what genius is. The roof of l’Unité is a transcendent work: it is as though Odysseus is beside you. In a few gestures, it summons the entirety of the Mediterranean’s mythic history.”

If the purpose of criticism is, at least in part, to inform and enrich practice, then tangible qualities of successful architectural schemes, rather than sweeping generalities, need to be identified. While the new-towns, housing schemes, and suburban developments which Meades critiques may all have their problems, to simply dismiss them as unliveable dystopias is supremely unhelpful. Practitioners such as Jan Gehl have sought to analyse and explore how issues such as scale, streetscape and dominant transport type impact on the liveability of cities and public spaces. For me, these much more concrete proposals based on survey, analysis and observation remain far more relevant and convincing than the semi metaphysical, self-editorialising criticism of which Meades, sadly, is not the only exponent.

Materials and Aesthetics are pretty core to most artworks, but sometimes these elements are relegated behind concept and subject. In this post I’m trying to think about why this might be and to define some of the less obvious ways in which visual aesthetics are important in fine art practice.

The open submission exhibition at The Whitechapel, The London Open, led me to think about the role and status of visual aesthetics in contemporary fine art. The exhibition was divided into two major spaces on the ground and first floor: the ground floor gallery featuring a range of installed film works, text, sound, installation and photographic works; while the first floor gallery featured predominantly sculpture, painting, objects and assemblages and image based works. However, while there were some interesting differences in media and form between the works exhibited in the two major spaces, what was much more notable were the stark differences in approach to material and aesthetics.

Whitechapel OpenWhitechapel Open

The curator’s notes suggested that the works in the first floor gallery had been grouped because the artists demonstrated interests in kitsch, folk and outsider art and, to an extent, these themes could be detected at least in some of the pieces. Much more obvious, and in my view more important, was that these artists engaged with the material and visual in an explicit way which could not be separated from the meaning and intention of their works. This was evident in pieces such as Zebra by Caroline Achaintre in which fibres had been woven into a tufted, carpet like, composition of intersecting lines; in the delicate pencil drawings of Mark Harris; in an installed animation by Shona Davies, Dave Monaghan and Jon Klein; and in the heavily textured paintings of Dale Carney. In all of these pieces, the evidence of the make process as well as use of colour, texture, composition and material interacted to create works with cogent visual identities. In the case of Davies, Monaghan and Klein’s macabre animation, for example, the choice of muted hues, hand made animated models and hand painted sets (the work was also displayed in a set) lent the work a poignancy and delicacy. The associations of animation with children’s television underscored the suicide narrative, adding a layer of complexity and dark humour to the piece. In this way, thematic, narrative and conceptual concerns were inextricably bound up in the materiality and form of the artistic work.

Whitechapel Open

In the text, installation, and video pieces of the ground floor gallery, aesthetics were much less explicitly prioritised as content of the work. Nevertheless, the aesthetic choices and values, of both artists and curators, could be detected. Whereas, the upstairs gallery had featured a rich variety of textures, colours and materials, here a palette of cool grey, white and black predominated. Videos were displayed on1990s matt black plastic monitors (shiny flat-screens would have hit the wrong note), slide machines clicked through images of the sky, a wall, apparently chosen to suggest at once the mundane and the profound. It struck me that the intended signifier for the anti-aesthetic aesthetic of these pieces was a kind of intellectual seriousness. It was as if in denying the allure of harmonising colour, the inviting tactility of texture, the expressive power of image making one could ascend to a realm of pure philosophical thought. This fine art Iconoclasm is one that I find particularly difficult, redolent as it is of Puritanism and a prioritisation of some kind of mysterious “content” which exists outside the form of the work.

There is certainly room in the art world for work which is meditative, idea based and not primarily concerned with the visual. But I would strongly argue that the communicative and associative power of aesthetics are important in framing even these works. Too often a failure to engage with visual aesthetics means falling back on a range of fine art clichés which not only risk alienating the viewer from the work, but also obscuring its core ideas

Menswear is an increasingly exciting area of design. Innovative up-and-coming designers and an expanding market share have combined to improve its status, alongside womenswear, as an important creative discipline. In this post I’m trying to describe some of the major tendencies in contemporary menswear and their wider cultural significance.

Men’s fashion in the last decade has been characterised by a style, pioneered by Hedi Slimane, of closer fit; an emphasis on fine drapey fabrics, shrunken tailoring and touches of androgyny. This aesthetic comprised of rocky and punky influences mixed with a kind of louche dandyism, the defining look: skinny jeans with a tailored jacket.[1]

Dior Homme by Hedi SlimaneDior Homme Hedi Slimane

Now a new menswear aesthetic appears to be emerging. Fashionable brands such as Our Legacy, YMC, Bleu de Paname and Folk are exploring a look with a strong emphasis on traditional fabrication, detailing which heavily references workwear, and hippyish folk-inspired touches, particularly in knit.

I would contest that while both of these styles are associated with particular designers and labels, their origins lie in fashionable dress as worn on the street. In both cases, models for these styles existed before their reproduction by designers: these were creative people who mixed second-hand, customised, and reclaimed garments to achieve their own look.

For me, this shift in menswear is intriguing. If we accept (as I do) that the clothes we put on encode meaning, we can suggest that this transformation reflects broader cultural and attitudinal changes. A desire to engage with the process of manufacture or make, strikes me as central to this folky-workwear aesthetic. Magazines such as Inventory, an early adopter and innovator of the style, spend as much time explaining to their readers how garments and accessories have been crafted, as discussing their inherent qualities. Equally, this is a look that favours texture (and even coarseness) over smooth, lustrous or drapey fabrics: there is a sense in which the consumer wants to see evidence of how the fabric has been woven or knitted.

 

It is surely laudable that consumers wish to know how, where, and by whom their clothes were made, with the concern for welfare and craft that implies. Nevertheless, there is (at least for me) an uneasiness about clothing that gives one the appearance of a 19th Century industrial or agricultural worker, but which costs many hundreds of pounds. To quote a friend “it’s as if people want to have things which are home-spun without spinning them themselves”. While it is easy to critique this consumption of craft as a co-option of something authentic by commercialism, it could be argued that it points to more radical instincts and aspirations in which work is meaningful, productive and celebrated.[2]

While the shift from rock-dandy to folky-proletarian may seem quite profound, I would suggest that both form part of a wider and more significant trend in which menswear has become more diverse and creative. Nor do I think that the styles pioneered by Hedi Slimane have become irrelevant, even if they are increasingly superseded by more contemporary interpretations of menswear. He remains for me one of the great innovators of modern fashion: in revisiting tailoring, exploring silhouette, and playing with the semantics of iconic menswear garments (the dinner jacket, the motorcycle jacket, the jean) he expanded what was deemed possible in menswear. The huge increase of interest in men’s fashion and the increased economic importance of the sector points to developments in male consumption and indeed in the consumption of masculinity(ies) which are worthy of further exploration.


[1] Some of us (hardly dinosaurs) entering fashion school in the first years of the 2000s remember how radical and indeed “contested” this new aesthetic was. Hedi Slimane’s collections for YSL and then Dior Homme started to attract positive attention at the same time as magazines like Arena Homme Plus were styling shoots with reinterpreted, nipped-in tailored styles, mixed with denim and leather. The process of the adoption of this look by the mainstream was slow, but by the end of the decade it had filtered right down to the high street.

[2] These problems and contradictions aren’t new of course. William Moriss and Arts and Crafts manufacturers came up against similar pressures in the 19th Century. I would also argue that as in Moriss’ day, they point to wider dissatisfactions with the model of market capitalism which prevails.