Highlights from R & Company’s Ambitious Design Exhibition 'OBJECTS: USA 2020'

At the tail end of the 1960s, the Museum of Contemporary Craft (currently Museum of Art and Design) director Paul J. Smith and dealer Lee Nordness decided to portray what R & Company co-founder Evan Snyderman today calls “an investigation that cemented dozens of craft artists’ careers.” The duo embarked on a three-year cross-country journey from Ohio to Nebraska in quest of “a movement happening with minimal outlet outside of art galleries,” according to Snyderman. "OBJECTS: USA" opened at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in 1969, including works by 253 artists with the backdrop of the Vietnam War, Nixon administration, and Civil Rights Movement. The exhibition traveled to 22 national museums and 11 more in Europe—its splash reached beyond the art circles, as even far as the "Today Show." Snyderman, who is among the organizers of R & Company’s upcoming exhibition dedicated to this groundbreaking survey, tells Interior Design that "OBJECTS: USA" introduced “a uniquely American genre of artists firsthand making the work as opposed to the European tradition of a separation between artist and fabricator.”

"OBJECTS: USA 2020" features 100 artists sharply divided between those from the original exhibition and contemporary names whose practices stem from the craft tradition. Snyderman was joined by design curators Glenn Adamson and James Zemaitis, the gallery's director of museum relations. for the selection of the historical works and, again, Adamson and Object & Thing founder Abby Bangser for contemporary pieces. After a decade of discussions and nearly three years of planning, the team found the solution to present a contemporary portrait of craft in a biennial-like approach. “Over five decades ago, Smith and Nordness took their survey as a diversity challenge,” says Snyderman. The original show had more women artists than any comparable survey at the time, in addition to a remarkable—still underwhelming—number of artists of color for its time. A tumultuous sociopolitical landscape today makes "OBJECTS USA:2020" an incredibly timely look at the craft movement in art, as notions of inclusion, sustainability, and labor profoundly resonate with an urgency of self-expression. 

Read Interior Design’s picks from R & Company’s "OBJECTS: USA 2020" exhibition, which will remain open through July, 2021 at 64 White Street in Manhattan. 

Joyce Lin, Skinned Table, 2020

"Skinned Table" in found walnut furniture, brass, and gold acrylic paint. Made in the U.S., 2020. Photography by Joe Kramm, courtesy of the artist and R & Company.

The youngest name in the show’s contemporary section, Lin is a multidisciplinary artist beyond the principles of art and design. That she studied furniture at the Rhode Island School of Design and geology at Brown University at the same time is reflected in her “skinned” furnitures, in which Lin dissects found objects’ layers with surgical precision. A simple razor blade is the artist’s tool to peel off the table’s veneer to reveal what Snyderman calls “the underbelly of an object between old and new.” She piles the furniture’s layers on brass pegs, similar to those used by museums for exhibiting ancient specimens.

Michele Oka Doner, Tattooed Dolls, 1968

"Tattooed Dolls," 1968. Glazed porcelain with iron oxide. Collection of Michele Oka Doner. Photography courtesy of the artist.

Oka Doner, on the other hand, was the youngest artist participating in the original show with her porcelain glazed dolls—and similarly she majored both in science and design while studying at the University of Michigan. The eerily anatomical patterns over the dolls’ firm skins stem from iron oxidation, as well as the artist’s painting of motifs that resemble a body’s inner organs. The two dolls in the show comes from Doner’s loft studio in Soho, created a few decades after the initial versions which were also adopted by protestors during the U.S. government’s use of napalm.

Richard Marquis, American Acid Capsule with Knit Case, 1969-70

"Stars and Stripes Acid Capsule" in solid-worked glass, murrine, canne, and incalmo techniques, with knit case. Made at the Venini Fabbrica, Murano, Italy, 1969–1970. Photography by Joe Kramm, courtesy of the artist and R & Company.

Another politically-charged piece from the original checklist is Marquis’s physically minuscule yet ideologically hefty blown glass pill dressed in American flag patterns. Marquis was one of the first foreign artists allowed into Northern Italy’s glass blowing foundries in 1967. After studying with Ron Nagle at the University of California in Berkley, Marquis became a pioneer of murrine, the Italian glass-making technique using a cane, in nontraditional aesthetics, with the influence of the time’s social dynamics. Snyderman, who studied under Marquis at age 16 at the Haystack Mountain School of Crafts, notes that the work’s resonance with the current political climate made it an early pick for the new show. Three in total, the work’s one edition sits in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s collection. 

Marilyn Pappas, Flight Suit, 1972

"Flight Suit" in mixed media assemblage. Made in the USA, 1972. Photograph courtesy of the artist and R & Company.

Less conventional in material, Pappas’s colorful collage over a U.S. airfare flight suit was another piercing statement on the Vietnam War. The formal attire provides a blank canvas for mixed-media abstraction with colorful geometric forms that challenge the uniform’s political significance. While the edition included in the original exhibition later joined the Museum of Art and Design’s collection, this show’s curators loaned a 1972 version from the artist’s own Massachusetts studio. Following her participation in "OBJECTS: USA," Pappas instantly became a sought-after figure and extensively exhibited her work across galleries; however, her work has remained out of the radar in recent decades. This edition, for example, has not been exhibited in over four decades.

John Souter, Soft Rock series, 2020

"Soft Rock (Blue)" in ceramic, flocking, aluminum, solid surface, copper, nylon rat tail cord, and brass. Designed and made by John Souter, U.S., 2020. Photography by Joe Bartram, courtesy of John Souter.

Color also leads contemporary artist John Souter’s predominantly ceramic mixed-media sculptures in whimsical and alien forms. The Philadelphia-based artist playfully twists notions of texture, materiality, and dimension in a style which Snyderman compares to Nagle’s. “I’ve been following Souter over the years as one of the surrealist artists making work with copper and flocking along with ceramic,” he says. The artist’s seemingly soft surfaces trick the eye, while the sculptures push limits of imagination with their extraterrestrial forms.

JB Blunk, Stool #7, 1973

Stool #7, 1965. Redwood. Photography courtesy of JB Blunk Collection.

Humor is subdued in sculptor JB Blunk’s wooden stool. An elegantly-curated solo exhibition at Kasmin Gallery last fall had cemented the Californian artist’s posthumous presence on the east coast, supported by his most extensive catalog to date that featured an essay by Adamson. Blunk worked in jewelry, ceramic, and even architecture, but his most striking work arguably came in wood, embodied in the medium’s organic smoothness and demure manifestation of narrative. Similar to Marquis in Italy, Blunk was one of the first American apprentices to study in Japan with master potters. Back in the U.S., he built his own studio in western California where he committed to a life of making, including wooden furniture. “Tension,” says Snyderman “is almost tangible in Blunk’s work.” The kinetic energy in his furniture is best experienced through their utilitarian character, such as this minimalist redwood stool which he accentuated with a sharp bullet-like growth poking from the underneath of the seat.

Adejoke Tugbiyele, Destiny’s Child, 2019

"Destiny’s Child," 2019. Grass brooms (umchayelo), church sticks, black paint, and resin. Photography (c) Melrose Gallery and the artist.

Materials’ potentials beyond their physical limits is traceable in Tugbiyele’s grass broom, church stick, black paint, and resin sculpture. Suspended 3-feet off the floor, the poetically-orchestrated biomorphic work contains the energy of its performative possibilities. The Brooklyn-based artist uses organic labor-related materials, occasionally those used in broom-making, to juxtapose mysteriously sensual works on the body and sexuality. When not activated with performances, the pieces stand in for the absent body yet speaks for the artist’s statement on togetherness as well as longing.

Tiff Massey, Yo Mama’s Earring, 2020    

"Yo Mama’s Earring," 2020. Brass. Photography by CJ Benninger, image courtesy of the artist.

A recent recipient of United States Artists Fellowship, the Detroit-based artist and metalsmith Tiff Massey beats brass to capture the influence of hip hop culture and the identity politics inseparable from the music genre. Her wearable or non-utilitarian jewelry pieces assume visual and performative cues from the everyday but they subvert connotations on race, class, and gender through Massey’s intricate hammering of the material. This blown-up size brass sculpture of an earring replicates an iconic accessory of hip hop in a scale associated with high art and raises questions about value and access assigned to culture.  

Jun Kaneko, Sanbon Ashi, c. 1970

Sanbon Ashi, c. 1970. Ceramic. Photography (c) Jun Kaneko.

Corporeality is evident in Omaha-based artist Kun Kaneko’s colorful ceramic sculpture adorned with geometric shapes in pastel hues. The Japanese American artist’s sculpture relies on the looker’s eyes to define its content: either an extremely contorted body, or a abstract bent form, the work is playful and inviting. Mostly known for his densely-colored larger than life ceramic busts, Kaneko has exhibited his clay or ceramic work in public spaces, as well as designing sets for opera. Snyderman considers Kaneko’s work “a cross pollination of cultures,” in which different references of form and pattern blend in with ceramic’s radiant impact.  

Tanya Aguiñiga, Vestigial 2, 2019

"Vestigial 2," 2019. Cotton rope, sisal, self-drying terra-cotta clay, Mylar, and gold leaf. (c) Aron Gent. Photography courtesy of Volume Gallery and the artist.

Mexican artist Tanya Aguiñiga’s practice weaves communities together through yarn and spirit. The L.A.-based artist’s MAD exhibition Craft & Care in 2018, for example, had included massive-scale woven sculptures, as well as a community project she had initiated at the Tijuana border with art-making and story-telling in its core. Aguiñiga’s sculptural practice, which ranges from furniture to abstract wall-hung or floor pieces, is a testimony of weaving’s meticulous and meditative nature. "Vestigial #2" combines cotton rope, sisal, self-drying terra cotta clay, mylar, and gold leaf into a dreamcatcher-like form which elegantly drapes in an airy lightness of woven forms. Both ghostly and present, the work is reminiscent of rivers, brain cells, or a blanket, balancing intimacy with collective use.    

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