By Ezra Shales
Anders Ruhwald estranges us from the semblance and sentience of domestic furnishings. Look at this installation as if you were waking up in a strange home and found yourself amidst a framework of social expectations and contrivances that were not of your own devising. Accept that the paragon of this sculpture is aligned to the contingent, momentary artifice of throwaway furniture. Hand-sculpted objects in ceramic and other media cumulate into a dialogue, or a habitat, one more akin to Terence Conran than a natural history museum. These are related to domestic props in my own home or yours, but they do not demarcate activities as much as they constitute a secondary layer of décor, albeit decontextualized. Banal luxuries are celebrated, much as Hogarth made a candlestick an exemplary form in his Analysis of Beauty (1753). These are the contours that guide our eyesight through the window of a boutique or populate a Martha Stewart magazine or television episode. In Ruhwald’s hands, these are orphaned stage directions, props waiting for actors. The forms are in turn bloated or shriveled, fetishized, and emotionally distressed. Nevertheless, as furnishings they maintain their usual role as catalytic ingredients in the process of human individualization, identity-formation, and class reaffirmation. Deferring to the more diurnal pulse of anxiety and avarice, the objects avoid suggestions of the transcendent. Ruhwald investigates the materialistic and narcissistic aspects of 21 st century possessions.
The ensembles cumulate in a sensation of anti-comfort. Dark slabs, tortured blobjects, and moody thin candlesticks congregate in a dispersed fashion like the estranged individuals compressed into an Otto Dix painting. Is it a Berlin nightclub in the 20s, or a corner of some IKEA at midnight? The mood is sexy and sanitized, a combination peculiar to the promise of contemporary goods. The use of blacklight makes literal the noir atmosphere. It also establishes a palpable mood in the absence of narrative. The artifacts evoke many sources at once, from the 1980s stiletto-on-formica feeling of Michael Graves and Memphis to the 1920s Egyptomania or lacquer of Eileen Gray. It is a cool hedonism. These are not the emotional Berber carpets or Serbian pots in a Le Corbusier structure, or reassuring the Japanese ukiyo-e in Frank Lloyd Wright’s interiors. They gesture at our habitual efforts to domesticate our rectilinear shoebox homes and assert the likely chance of failure. Ruhwald plays by associating with commercialized forms of gothic and deco elegance in much the same way as Memphis did. But elegance is fused with a more angst-ridden expressionism. Instead of laminates, we are faced with weighty and dense ceramic bodies.
To place Ruhwald’s work in opposition to traditional art-speak, he makes insignificant forms. They are the ghosts of fetishized domestic accessories. Most of the artifacts are like newel posts or faucets, ready to be encountered physically by the body, but simultaneously repellent. For example, in one artifact an acrobatic mass on thin scaffolding gives out and loses its balance purposefully. Visually it resembles nothing more than broken tinny exercise machines lumped into rubbish piles in so many urban dumpsters. However, there is a pleasure in the clumsiness and sense of weighty refuse. The objects force the gravity of everyday life to tumble into consciousness, like the sight of an obese bicycle rider rounding a corner or a towel to large to wring dry. Our mind ponders matching this artwork to familiar shapes, such as candlesticks, vases, barbells, and lamps, but the ceramic surfaces glazed a cold black refuse to give in to familiarity. Although monochromatic, the heft of the ceramic ensemble is leavened by syrupy and silky textures, alternately smooth and rutted.
The parts-to-whole relationship among these artifacts correlates to domestic furnishings, but the surfaces and weights are repellent as much as they are chair-like or vase-like. Although the phrase means little today in the world of sculpture, these are “specific objects,” but not in the manner that Donald Judd had intended in 1964. Instead of one object serving as a micro- and macro-phenomenon, with pretensions for universal accessibility, Ruhwald’s objects do not seek to be alone or heroic. Instead of evoking Judd, they embrace the social life and ultimately more tentative contours of the decorative arts. These are movables, not twentieth-century sculptures strutting out a myth of autonomy. A few of the sculptural forms are melancholic and self-pitying and some are arrogant, but none are complete or suggest any master narrative. They are contingent upon each other and accept contingency.
The reflections, illuminations, and glitter Ruhwald adds to his objects bring the issue of retro stylization in and out of focus. His admiration for the libido and charms of Wiener Werkstätte furnishings is tangible. The weight of traditional ornament is pleasurable even if traditional ornamental syntaxes and conventional forms of beauty are absent.
The husk of genteel forms ask one to reconsider the ways that “Artificial links and twists of Discourse, are like the Ropes and Wires, without which we know that machines in a theatre cannot move.” (1)
This atmosphere of self-consciousness outlined in The Conversation of Gentlemen Considered (1738) bears consideration in relation to Ruhwald. The art of the window dresser and the “fine artist” has been intertwined since the dawn of the twentieth century, and are essential to dramatic utopian and dystopian representations of commerce. Think of Frank L. Baum, who authored the Wizard of Oz and dressed the windows of Chicago department stores. In his era and dynamic urban context, Baum articulated a seminal theory on how to generate desire with domestic props and silks, and used his understanding of glass and mirrors as a basis for his fictitious Emerald City to be a palpable and seductive mental image. Ruhwald’s objects are just such a meditation on the powers of goods. Elaine Scarry’s suggestive mental picture, that “the continual modifications of the chair ultimately climax in, and thus may be seen as rehearsals for, civilization’s direct intervention into and modification of the skeleton itself,” reminds us that these insignificant objects inform our relations and our selves in significant ways (2).
Ezra Shales holds a PhD from Bard and is an art historian, curator, and artist whose research, publications, and exhibitions explore the intersection of design, craft, and art in modern and contemporary culture. He is currently a professor at Massachusetts College of Art and Design in Boston and the author of Made in Newark: Cultivating Industrial Arts and Civic Identity in the Progressive Era (2010).
(1) Mark Hallett, Hogarth (Phaidon, 2000), 67.
(2) Elaine Scarry, The Body in Pain (Oxford University Press, 1985), 254.