Sometimes, the ugly can be beautiful and the weird can be wonderful. Sometimes, a house might not be a machine for living in, but a living machine. Sometimes, space might matter less than striking the pose. Those are some of the messages I took away from “A Machinery for Living,” the jewel of a group exhibition that the artist Walead Beshty organized to fill the summer doldrums in New York’s Petzel Gallery. The exhibit, which runs through Aug. 8 and has 37 participants in addition to Beshty, shows bits of buildings, bodies, and machinery entangled in a dance from which, like either a construction site or a car crash, you can’t turn away.
Most of the work here is what architects might describe as documentation. The most literal contribution of that sort is Liam Gillick’s “Pinboard Project (Corn)” (2013), which consists of sparse blueprints for an artist’s installation. There are sections here, such as Christopher Williams’ 2008 photograph, “Cutaway model Nikkor zoom lens 50 … ” (the title goes on about as long as the insanely detailed documentation of every section of this mechanical device), which is also on view in Williams’ current retrospective at MoMA. For finished projects, you can turn to a selection of Lewis Baltz’s photographs, which show warehouses, a Steelcase office, and construction sites in all their mundane glory, etched in black and white as monuments to our ability to store.
Most disturbing of all are Lucy McKenzie’s “Project for a Nazi Living Room” and “Project for a Nazi Décor” (both 2012), which horrify the viewer through their watercolor and pencil banality. They are at the heart of the aestheticization of that which has no thought and no morality, only functionality. Made to look like an assemblage of familiar elements that deny their structure, their sources, and their true nature, these are the machines we live with and in, and this is what we do to make them appear pretty.
Against—or rather, woven through—these beauties of banality, Beshty poses both the animation of the seemingly objective and the mechanization of what we think of as human. He roots this surrealism in the work of 20th century artists from Francis Picabia to Jay Defeo, and then carries it through to this convoluted art approach to the practitioners in the present. The biggest discovery for me was the work of the late California artist Craig Kauffman, someone I had known as a "light and space" maker, whose collages of mechanical parts, ladies shoes, and organic forms suggest a horrible confluence and fascination to contemplate.
While Rachel Harrison preserves the messiness of this tradition in her shopping cart stuffed with everything from a telephone to chunks of polystyrene and cement, scene-stealer Atelier E.B. commands our attention with abstractions of fashion photo shoots, their models posed on furniture scavenged from the gallery and clad in high-end clothes (“Look 1,” “Look 2,” and “Look 3,” 2014). Bodies become dead receivers of standardized and mass-produced objects pretending to compose individual style.
Beshty’s exhibition deserves a much larger platform. Crammed into Petzel’s galleries for a month, “A Machinery for Living” gyrates through its imagery and messages in too much of a hurry and with too much density. I hope Beshty will have the chance to explore and expose this disturbance in the extended field where architecture, art, the human body, and an unknowable biomorphism grind together into a machinery producing something as yet unblemished by good taste or rationality at another time and place.
Aaron Betsky is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.