It seems to be a rule of art that what was once base and ugly becomes beautiful—at least in the eyes of those hunting for the latest and greatest. A similar thing appears to be happening in architecture, where the buildings we once thought of as mistakes or monstrosities are now beacons of innovations we need to preserve. I noted the attention to scrap, dirt, and the discarded in my blogs from Kassel, Germany, last week. This spring, the drive to save the Orange County, N.Y., Municipal Building made us reevaluate work whose very name, “neo-brutalist,” indicates what we once thought of it. Everything old and ugly is new and beautiful again.
After I left Kassel, I took the train down to Basel, Switzerland, where the annual Art Basel fair brings together a vast quantity of contemporary and modern art with an equally vast amount of buyers and their money, all facilitated by a perhaps even greater amount of intermediaries, tastemakers, and professionals.
While there, I moderated a panel at a side fair, Design Miami Basel, devoted to furniture, design, and architecture. My discussion group consisted of the collector and art advocate Beth Rudin DeWoody; her daughter, the art entrepreneur Kyle DeWoody; and the architect Alex Mustonen, partner in Snarkitecture,
What I thought was particularly noteworthy was the fact that we all accepted, almost without thinking, that these three individuals concerned themselves with elements that recycled materials, ideas, and forms that we not too long ago would have banned from polite company. They are not the only ones: Beth DeWoody recently displayed some of her collection of 1960s California “finish fetish” artists at the Parrish Museum, in part in response to the Pacific Standard Time exhibitions in Los Angeles.
Kyle DeWoody’s store and website, Grey Area, shows work that riffs on a world of plastics and plastic imagery. Before we started, she gave us all Tom Sachs’ fake Rolexes, actually completely abstract rubberized plastic armbands that only hint at the imitations you buy on the sidewalk. She also showed her customized Mini, which Peter Dayton had pinstriped in best 1970s fashion. Grey Area also sells a table Dayton designed as a three-dimensional Frank Stella abstraction. I am no great fan of Stella’s work, but this table made me cringe—and that might be part of its purpose. As Dayton says on the site: “I branded and then re-branded to keep changing the context. The table can function as idea as well as something that can be used in a very functional way.”
The object, in other words, slips away from judgment and place because it does not have its own original form or image. Snarkitecture played with many of the same ideas when they reused letters from the old Dolphins Stadium in Miami as a public art work in front of the new stadium. They do not make finished and polished buildings so much as they rework and re-craft what exists, most famously when they placed a large block of Styrofoam in New York’s Storefront for Art and Architecture and proceeded to carve a passage way through it, finding a new space within what most of us think of as icky material in a space whose small, triangular shape has frustrated many other artists and architects.
Snarkitecture’s work concerns itself with the ephemeral and the temporary—sometimes explicitly so, as when they encased a light bulb in white gypsum cement: when the light bulb runs its course, your artwork of fixture is done as well. For Grey Area, they designed shelves that look like Styrofoam, but are made of lacquered wood. In that focus on what appears as other and on process, they cast their and our attention on flexible, often human-made materials that defy any desire to accrete affection or a patina of age. That seems to be a general message in the art world today: live for the moment, recycle ideas, forms, and images, and delight in frustrating any desire for permanence in either place or meaning.