Many artists have incorporated everyday materials of one kind or another into their work, from Richard Artschwager, who notably used Formica in his Minimalist sculptures, to Félix González-Torres, who created pieces consisting of strings of common lightbulbs. Chicago-based Jeff Carter finds imaginative ways to make artworks out of laminated shelving, drawers and other ready-to-assemble products from IKEA.
There’s nothing “arty” about his sculptures in any traditional sense. Indeed, in certain settings, some of them might not even be perceived as art at all. Placed in a living room, for instance, they could easily be taken for the kind of storage units and pieces of furniture that their materials were originally meant to construct. Ambiguity is clearly one of Carter’s goals. On the faculty of DePaul University in Chicago since 2007, he recently enjoyed a big moment in the city’s spotlight, with a pair of concurrent solo exhibitions, at the Mission, a compact, nonprofit art space, and the DePaul Art Museum.
Carter vaguely bases the forms of his constructions on real or proposed Chicago modernist buildings. The four multi-tiered pieces at the Mission draw their inspiration from an unchosen 1922 competition entry by Walter Gropius and Adolf Meyer for the Tribune Tower. The eight, more diverse works at DePaul make up a series titled “The Common Citizenship of Forms” and take their shapes from buildings on Chicago’s now-razed Michael Reese Hospital campus, part of which was designed in 1946 by Gropius, the founder of the famed Bauhaus School.
In The Common Citizenship of Forms (Surgical Hospital), 2010, an approximately 3-by-7-by-3-foot structure, Carter creates a striking model of a horizontal, four-level modernist building. We can think of IKEA furnishings, with their sleek lines, as meeting in some ways the Bauhaus’s mission of bringing affordable design to everyone, albeit through ecologically unsustainable means. All the works blur the bounds of sculpture, architecture and design, and possess a conceptualist edge. Though they tend to be more clever than profound, the artist nonetheless raises some intriguing questions about permanence and impermanence, disposability and durability, and beauty and mass-produced banality.
Along with such serious themes, an equally important sense of playfulness runs through these pieces. The Common Citizenship of Forms (Laundry Building), 2010, a squat rectangular work with pull-out mesh baskets, shakes as the sounds of a washing-machine spin cycle play from a speaker—a performance that inevitably draws a laugh.
While most of the selections in the two shows were floor-based pieces, some hung on the wall. The Common Citizenship of Forms (Linear Accelerator), 2011, for instance, is a three-tiered, wall-mounted box, from which three blue electrical cords extend to the floor, with illuminated light bulbs at their ends. Several of the works have kinetic elements, such as Untitled #5 (Chicago Tribune Tower), 2014, a gray, blocky piece with six cut-out niches, each holding a fuchsia pillow that inflates and deflates.
Although IKEA’s modular products were never intended to be artistic building blocks, Carter shows that they can be effectively used to create expressive, fun and sometimes pointed works.