By Ezra Shales
An artist in the age of IKEA, Anders Ruhwald explores the enigmatic emotional connections between décor and sculpture, the constructions that Alvar Aalto called “inhuman” and “dehumanized” furnishings (1). Lamenting formalism and rationalism, and with it tubular steel and harsh white artificial light fixtures that were not “cosy,” Aalto suggested “…the yellow flame of the wax candle and the interior decorator’s tendency to brighten her light compositions with yellow silk are more in line with human instinct than the electrician with his photometer and his stereotyped ideas about white light (2).” Ruhwald’s wax candles flicker with Aalto’s humanism but also smart with allusions to middlebrow home furnishings catalogs. Their limited lifespan and diminished lumens traditionally index the brevity of life, like the contorted gestures of the ancient Laocoön statue. But these candles wallow in mundane “mood lighting,” almost satirizing their own theatricality. In his scale and repertoire of forms, Ruhwald readily participates in the language of decorative art and avoids grandiose myths, aside from Aalto himself and Scandinavian design as a whole. Catalog photography of blond birch veneers and white laminates, set off by sea glass and vanity publications hold the stage as the lingua franca of contemporary Western visual culture. In this odd middle landscape, “new age” candle and ancient votive collide, muddying the distinctions between the pastoral and the metropolitan, organic and technological.
Sculpturally, Ruhwald refers to vases, light fixtures, and chairs, and yet his hand-built versions are mottled and monochrome simulacra that deny the natural and celebrate artifice. When he intentionally connects the cool hedonism of a good-looking pristine commodity to its descent into the abyss of domestic chaos, he deploys the organic strategically. Wavering black sculpture obstructs the gallery, and returns the viewer to fundamental questions about the ways objects intended to engender sociability actually inhibit our lives. We see our own middling temporary possessions, especially the ones that become abject so quickly. The candle is one such ephemeral commodity that invites our familiarity and pleasure of recognition. Bonded to a ceramic fixture, modern material impoverishment hovers eloquently alongside echoes of Modernist design. For instance, Ruhwald excavates Aalto’s Savoy vase of 1935 to use as a mirror for our own displaced yearnings and stumbling as consumers. This is an ultra-contemporary derivative, cheap crud fused with a primary object of virtù. In the 1980s, Haim Steinbach hung commodities such as boxes of detergent on the wall, but as clinical specimen. Ruhwald moves the goods back off the shelves to their roles as “biological units” in the domestic sphere, to again draw upon Aalto’s terminology. He draws on Scandinavian Modernism, both high and low, as a morass of commodities and material culture. Scandinavia is in quotation marks, as a cultural construction (3). In this tactile and cerebral space of fungible capital, artistic and social, the sculpture camps out.
If you divide the candlestick into many more parts, it will appear crowded, as it will want distinctiveness of form on a near view, and lose the effect of variety at a distance…. - William Hogarth, The Analysis of Beauty (1743) (4)
A trademark of the rational, or ATM of $? I write as an American who is self-conscious when he hears and sees his country’s denominations reproduced illegibly, like sports logos littering the global mind and body. Likewise, Iittala Oy now reproduces the Savoy vase as a rubber ice cube mold, a cookie cutter, and a pattern on a dishcloth, a feat Aalto had not considered remotely feasible when he lectured on “Rationalism and Man” to the Svenska Slöjdföreningen (which translates as “Swedish Association of Industrial Designers” or “Arts and Crafts,” depending on the decade) in 1935. To recall Hogarth, the form of the Savoy has become both crowded and indistinct. But in our contemporary visual culture, it is rational obscurantists who hyper-fetishize commodities. Ruhwald’s proxy for the Savoy vase contains equal parts skepticism and recuperation. He participates in the degeneration of meaning and yet returns to a primary desire, the wish to engender new social relations via design. Hogarth’s baluster candlestick remains interesting as an icon of luxury to investigate quality despite, or in spite of, its materiality. Hogarth savored the “line of beauty” in the lowliest Londoner, and avoided conflating goodly beauty with ethical goodness. He democratized pleasure, or at least tried to do so, by placing it in the perception of form, not material essence. Except for television shows on gourmet food, such lessons in connoisseurship are unfashionable. Yet our engagement with visual culture pivots on these most basic distinctions of artifice, be it the granularity of an apple pie, ceramic body, or photographic emulsion. Ruhwald seizes the candle as an object lesson in much the same way, as an opportunity to re-inscribe the artistic pretensions of the most basic material culture.
Ruhwald draws on candles and tassels because they are good for thinking, not good material or especially good thoughts. Such materialist philosophy can also be applied retroactively to the past. A Mondrian painting can be experienced as the ineluctable modality of the purely visual, but also as intervals of color which masking tape once cordoned apart. My knowledge of the taped line corrodes my ability to perceive Mondrian’s artifacts as autonomous. Similarly, a John Chamberlain sculpture is inextricably linked in my mind to the great American Adonis of the roaring twenties, Ford’s Model T and its sexy pelvis. The twisted, crushed chrome fender of the twentieth century was the permissive cause of beauty in Chamberlain’s work. Today’s plastic auto bodies might melt in interesting ways but would deny that genre its specific allure. Seeing the masking tape and the chrome fender does not weaken this art, it reconnects it to its technological and material contexts. The rational explanations render human artistic intentions that are so often classified as a mystical and intellectual. As others have noted, histories of modern art suppress this aspect of material culture, attempting to leverage meaning apart from tawdry consumption. Today’s artists, crafters, and designers hacking IKEA products call attention to this process. The company’s accessible and economical furnishings have eradicated romantic and historical notions of raw material. Sculptors in Tel Aviv and Vancouver alike shop the store to buy readymade flat-packed furniture to retool in the unmade, a paradox of no mean proportion. Chamberlain’s feigned naivety about his materials is no longer possible.
Social Art, Anti-Social Craft
Like Jorge Pardo, who “reprogrammed” Alvar Aalto’s designs as units in his own work, Ruhwald does so with the intention of reanimating an artifact socially. In Post-Production, Nicolas Bourriaud claims that artists like Pardo and Tiravanija are re-socializing commerce, reframing consumption as production in a democratic manner (5). But Aalto himself considered his works complete only when they were in use and usable.
A standardized object should not be a finished product, but on the contrary be made so that man and all the individual laws controlling him supplement its form,” he wrote, saving out the final step for the irrational human in his lecture on “Rationalism and Man.” When I first encountered an installation by Rirkrit Tiravanija in 1993, I had precisely this sensation looking at a bottle of sriracha sauce on his table cluttered with ingredients. I savored the tacit knowledge of what it tasted like, how it vaporized in the frying pan. I saw myself refracted, a product of material culture, and felt the journey from my grandmother’s kitchen to my own in one glance. In such events of “relational aesthetics,” Bourriaud claims the cloister of art is reopened to living humanity. But such a premise of creative consumption has always been front and center in the decorative arts, and was even acknowledged by Aalto. Historically, craft and the decorative arts are rooted in the very place where relational aesthetics strives to go. Very few craft practitioners grasp this essential social taproot and plurality of craft. Often the attributes of function, invented cultural and ethnic traditions, and materiality are mistaken as truths in their own right. Humans forget that conjectural attributes like honesty need to be socially grounded. Alone, or abandoned by time, such qualities turn overtly dishonest. The social life of an artifact is, of course, what distinguishes the pot from a vessel, and remakes the abstraction of form into a plate: good conversation transforms what is artistic into culture. Ruhwald grasps that respecting the incompleteness of an artifact or implanting potential future sociability is what makes the anthropomorphic grandfather clock or sugar bowl enduringly fantastical.
Ruhwald represents a chair or the outline of a television as a bodily obstruction, a question mark about how these machines for seating the body and mind prevent the flow of shared space. Instead crafting a poetic metaphor for “chairness,” he builds an endoskeleton of the commodity. The craftiness in his use of clay lies not in its virtuoso handling but the implication of the audience’s carnal appreciation. His alternation between irregular and silken ceramic surfaces sustains the question of what is gained in our era of lost distinctions. The meatiness of clay operates in opposition to banal postmodern quotation marks placed around style. Transforming Aalto’s Savoy vase into a birthday cake is flat-footed artifice. He recapitulates both IKEA’s and Iittala’s transformation of the primary objects of Modernism, interweaving the high and low intentions.
He might resemble an “installation artist” but it is more specific to his method to label Ruhwald a craftsman of industrial design. This interpretive perspective behooves the large field of artists working in what are historically considered craft-based media and responding to contemporary material culture. From this perspective, Ruhwald’s sculpture extends the postmodern craftsmanship of Adrian Saxe, who pioneered using such knick-knackeries as tassels. Whereas Saxe’s work relies on centripetal attention and singularity, Ruhwald turns to the decorative ensemble, and turns our body centrifugally outward to streamers and tassels as décor to brush against. Instead of producing enriched artifacts that stand in isolation, Ruhwald begins with a habit and outlines a spatial occupancy. Saxe’s expositions fed off of ceramic vessels as allusions to specific historical styles; Ruhwald comments on the commodification of visual languages and their failure as social catalysts.
A parallel to Ruhwald’s objects that stump our sociability is the furniture design of Scott Burton. In the roaring 1980s, Burton encouraged viewers to admire Brancusi’s pedestals without its sculpture, his stated intention being to reclaim the bases themselves as sculpture. This was sculpture in the expanded field, but oddly ingrown into the white cube itself. Simultaneously, Burton constructed seating for plazas in midtown Manhattan that riffed on these stacked masses, but made them out of polished granite. His bold forms became corporate cenotaphs when isolated in the cement field of city sidewalks, while Brancusi’s bases became lovely below-the-waist fetishes. Both yearned for a more domestic context, a space where they might have been more loved or tended.
Ruhwald’s sculpted interior decoration is rooted in the twentieth-century Scandinavian tradition of the Formgiver, in which the artisan compensates for modernity and our enigmatic dissatisfaction with it. He returns to Aalto’s suggestion that “a standardized object should not be a finished product,” which preempted Bourriaud’s thesis by seventy years. Aalto continued:
The things surrounding [humans] are hardly fetishes or allegories with mystical eternal value; more than anything else, they are cells and tissues, living beings like himself, building components that make up human life. They cannot be treated differently from other biological units, lest they run the risk of not fitting into the system and becoming dehumanized (6).
What Aalto feared has come to pass: consumer fetishization of commodities like instantly scratched plastic chairs, watches, and other hardware for living has displaced the chthonic laws of human sociability. Ruhwald turns the myth of a Scandinavian design ethos, a post-war phenomenon in which Aalto was a key player and in which Ruhwald himself developed, into an insular minefield, revealing it to be one part promise of democratization, one part tactical marketing, and one part insidious social engineering.
The artist’s references to the household violence wrought by mass-produced commodities upon our psychology delineate a broad contemporary predicament. His exhibition is both a boutique of mainstream Modernist ornament and a slew of props for glam rock or gothic fashionistas. His sculpture might best be seen as the ornamental domestic equivalent of the anti-terrorist cement and stone bollards that punctuate our cities, providing discomfort as physical perches and psychological reminders of our failure to operate as a collective. This urban décor of stanchions, barriers, and impasses, similarly obstructs camaraderie, or alerts us to its absence.
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) Aalto, “Rationalism and Man”6 (1935) as reprinted in Alvar Aalto, In His Own Words, Göran Schildt, ed., Timothy Binham trans., Rizzoli, New York, 1998, p. 91-93.
2) Alvar Aalto, In His Own Words, 92. Aalto also notes that “even the wax candle can be a subject of study in the techno-humanist laboratory that decides the questions of what kind of artificial light is the most rational from the human point of view.” Ibid.
3) See Widar Halén and Kerstin Wickman, eds., Scandinavian Design Beyond the Myth, Arvinius/Form, Stockholm, 2003, especially Kevin M. Davies, “Marketing Ploy or Democratic Ideal? On the Mythology of Scandinavian Design,” pp. 101-110.
4) Hogarth Restored, J. Stockdale and G. Robinson, London, 1808, p. 121. Nicolas Bourriaud, Post-Production 2nd ed., Lukas & Sternberg, New York, 2005, p. 31-5, 45-9.
5) Alvar Aalto, Designer, Pirkko Tuukkanen, ed., Alvar Aalto Foundation, Helsinki, 2002, p. 29. For a less socially-based concept of the supplement in decorative arts and craft see Glenn Adamson, who draws on Jacques Derrida’s use of term to consider framing devices. See Adamson, Thinking Through Craft, Berg, London, 2007, 9-37
6) Alvar Aalto, In His Own Words, 93.