When I stopped by Northern-Southern gallery to see their latest exhibition, I had just finished what I considered to be a pretty intense jigsaw puzzle. One thousand pieces later, visions of puzzle pieces coming together and ideas about the part-versus-the-whole were fresh on my mind.
Perhaps this is why viewing the exhibition,“WORK PLAY MONEY LOVE WHAT IT IS WHAT COULD BE BOTH NEITHER ART DESIGN,” brought into focus the individual units that contribute to an overall design, the repetition of elements, and a pervasive sense of play.
Take Greg Foley’s circular prints on aluminum. Publication-designer, author, artist and former creative director for Visionaire, Foley says his abstract color pieces began as “purely digital goofing off.” He’s made similar studies in embroidery and a special series of risographs prints (a process a bit like screen-printing) on paper. For this project, he chose three objects designed by 1980s Italian design collective, the Memphis Group, and appropriated their palettes. Instead of Memphis color-blocking, Foley’s individual hues softly graduate across the surface of each of their shiny supports. Heady names like “Ashoka (After Ettore Sottsass)” contrast with their diagonal, tic-tac-toe- style alignment. Pegs are installed in a grid so that the spheres can be moved around to produce other arrangements according to whim.
Another work that could be conceived of individually, as a whole, or potentially repositioned, is artist Cheryl Wing-Zi Wong’s “Monumentality.” The Hydrocal plaster sculpture can be divided into smaller 3” x 3” x 3” works. As currently displayed, they resemble a block of multiple miniature white step pyramids or maybe Buddhist or Hindu temple structures. While they relate to both architecture and ritual, their simplification, scale and installation conjures toy-like configurations, removing them from the real world.
A vibrant work on paper reading “You Are What You Do,” is one of the few works in the exhibition involving text. Rick Griffith, graphic designer and founder of MATTER, cites his short form writing practice as a big influence on the work, but the words signify a message that speaks to the collective motivations of all of the artists on view — or the questioning of them. If you’re employed as a designer, are you a visual artist too?
The show’s title “WORK PLAY MONEY LOVE WHAT IT IS WHAT COULD BE BOTH NEITHER ART DESIGN,” highlights oppositions and professional lives shaped by contradictions. Northern-Southern Gallery director Phillip Niemeyer, himself a graphic designer, understands the push and pull of making a living versus making money. As he puts it, “There’s pressure to do the career-oriented safe thing, or this crazy thing that will make most people question your common sense. We serve to masters: heart and stomach. Every person in this show deals with that. And some of the practitioners in the show have to work through the reasons why they do what they do at every move.”
Designers and furniture makers, Lindsey Culpepper and Gil Moreno, or Transmountain, echo this sentiment saying in the show’s fold-out catalog that they are in the middle of “making do and making art.” For this show they constructed a curious sort of table-top environment from red oak, acrylic and mirror titled, “Reflecting Pool.”Clear and solid geometrical parts are assembled to make a futuristic mini- landscape (or urbanscape?) on a pedestal. A bit like Proust’s magic lantern, the design cleverly projects an unexpected silhouette onto the adjacent wall, contrasting the solid materials with the illusory image.
In the past some distinguished between design and high art or its ideal. But a conscious blurring of the boundaries since early modernism has persisted. Niemeyer says, “The show is intended as conversation. It’s a search for a new vocabulary for an era that is quickly outgrowing the scaffolding of twentieth century practice.”
If this selection of hybrid designer-artists — who use everything from artisanal processes like woodworking to digital software and technology — is any indicator, designers will continue to push the limits of transformational and thought-provoking works with slippery labels and few limits. Like a puzzle the designer-artist ideas sometimes through chance, connect and unite. In curating the show, Niemeyer says he tried to give the works the space they need, “but with an eye, always, on the finished whole.”
“WORK PLAY MONEY LOVE WHAT IT IS WHAT COULD BE BOTH NEITHER ART DESIGN” continues through Dec. 12 at Northern-Southern Gallery.