Artist Justin Beal has collected 50 years’ worth of “Soft Matter” in a group exhibition at New York’s Wallspace gallery. The term refers to a classification of organic materials, plastics and foams from sustainable design expert Ezio Manzini’s 1989 book The Material of Invention (MIT Press). The show (through Aug. 1) features 20 works by 10 artists: Archizoom Associati, Becky Beasley, Hans Breder, Tom Burr, Talia Chetrit, Gaylen Gerber, Luisa Lambri, Enzo Mari, Carlo Mollino and Michael E. Smith.
Most of the works employ a palette of black and white. There are a number of photographs, from Lambri’s almost all-white images of architecture and Breder’s collagelike images of multi-limbed bodies to Mollino’s lushly colored Polaroids of women in architectural environments. The most colorful works are Enzo Mari’s Bambu and Pago Pago vases (1969), which complement Gerber’s Support (1970), an elongated dome of polyurethane foam coated in white paint. The work alludes to what Beal calls “a restrained or sexualized body.” This allusion is implied by Beal’s examinination of the relationships of furniture, architecture and sculpture to the human form in work from the 1960s to today.
Beal spoke with A.i.A. by e-mail last week about material, color and the artist-curated show.
ELLIOT CAMARRA It is surprising to see work from a wide range of disciplines and motivations looking so formally cohesive. Are there groupings that are especially exciting to you?
JUSTIN BEAL I think the best artist-curated shows begin with the work that you care about and the artists who influence your own practice and the formal cohesion follows from there. The three design objects in this show were included in the “New Domestic Landscape” show at [New York’s] Museum of Modern Art in 1972, so they have a determined place in art history, but each has a unique character as a specific object—the Puffo has been appropriated and resurfaced by Gaylen Gerber, the Bambu vases have the character and discoloration of 45-year-old plastic and the Mies Chair I restored and disassembled myself.
To me the differences in discipline are second to the similarities of materiality and sensibility. It also helps to work with artists with a sophisticated understanding of architecture. Luisa Lambri knows more about architecture than most architects. In terms of groupings, I was particularly excited to see how Talia Chetrit’s photograph of the bicycle seat worked next to the disassembled Archizoom chair—the rubber and leather, the deconstructed object, the absent body. If the show had to be only two pieces, it could be those two.
CAMARRA In your own work you seem to play with the relationship between architectural order and organic materials. Did curating the show help you explore this?
BEAL Absolutely. That relationship is always present in my work, but I tend to approach it from a fairly fixed perspective. I combine organic elements with architectural materials because they have such a clear metonymic relationship to the body. It is a way to address the friction between the corporeal and the architectural. The process of working with other artists who approach the same material or subject mater from a different vantage point reopens that investigation in new ways. Becky Beasley uses cucumbers in her work. I use cucumbers in my work. On one level that is just a dumb coincidence, but it turned me on to her work in general and her excellent exhibition “Spring Rain” in particular [at Spike Island, in Bristol, UK]. In her photograph, Becky employs the cucumber in a totally different way, with a sensitivity to architecture and the body that was very resonant to me, but with an entirely different lexicon and system of associations.
CAMARRA In a primarily monochromatic exhibition, the most notably vibrant pieces are the Carlo Mollino Polaroids and Enzo Mari vases, which share a color scheme and are arranged side by side. Can you talk about your decision to break with the prevailing palette?
BEAL I rarely use color in my own work, and when I do, it generally comes inherent in a material or a found object rather than through an additive process such as painting. A similar logic applies to this show, with the exception of two works by Michael E. Smith and Gaylen Gerber, both of which are actually painted white. I did not actively seek out the orange in either the vase or the Polaroid, but once I saw it, the two pieces needed to be close to each other. The coincident color may just be a product of the fact that both works were made around the same time in the same part of the world, but it also presents an interesting formal connection between Mari and Mollino, who are both enormously influential figures for me and whose bodies of work are opposite in so many ways—one extroverted, the other introverted, one humanist, one elitist. It made sense to me to put them together.