The tension between design and art derives from the utility ascribed to the former vying with the elusiveness that characterizes the latter. In terms of the art market, to the extent that we praise those works that seem effortless, we’re actually siding with the logic of commodity. Wherever the history of the labor that goes into an object’s making is concealed, this creates a false freedom like that of the bourgeois market. Against this would be works that showcase a history. Such works won’t openly exhibit the process that went into shaping them as “art,” but they will preserve the historicity of the objects that compose them. They won’t exist as products, but they will incorporate products into their appearances, highlighting their status as productions.
The title of Lizzi Bougatsos‘s show at James Fuentes Gallery, Work Habits, calls attention to the invisible labor that goes into making art. The works emphasize the material underpinning of objects that have been produced for a specific use. Without being reductive, a leather jacket becomes simply leather (“After the Pope Party,” 2016); and without altering the integrity of its design, a floor fan becomes simply portable, billowing out a draped white fabric affixed to two upright steel poles (“I Just Want To Be Wonderful,” 2016). The artistry here neither conceals the labor that goes into making the work, nor does it fixate on activity and process. It creates a backdrop you can wrap around yourself like a blanket. The enveloping character of this work hinges on participation, on physical involvement. The tactility of “I Just Want To Be Wonderful” is just as important as its shifting appearance to as you move around it.
Like a détournement of James Turrell, another piece in Work Habits — “Unforgettable” (2015) — drenches the gallery in deep, red light. Red, of course, is coded, and perhaps a little too obviously so — with associations like sensuality, passion, anger, and danger — but Bougatsos’s ceiling installation seems to be a dig at conceptualist dematerialization. The enveloping red light acts like an adhesive, perceptibly altering the way the other works in the show are taken in, and recasting everything to appear furtively animate and makeshift.
Bougatsos’s works are less objects than collections of objects. “After the Pope Party,” which features a leather jacket casually placed on an indiscernible object (something like a wooden chair), takes on an exploded, not quite Surrealist aspect. Each compositional element (including the yoga mat that serves as a pedestal) is arranged so that its ordinary function, while still materially present to the eye, falls away in the act of recognition. In this particular work, the leather jacket stood out to me. I wasn’t sure whether someone had just left it there, or if it even was a jacket. It didn’t seem to have a place, as jackets normally do on a table or rack, and felt alien from any notion of ownership. If it was intended as commentary, this would be commentary on fashion.
But what is fashion? Mingling the capacity of art to amplify a single shape or perspective exponentially with design’s instrumental character, fashion can liberate us from the ideological snares imposed by art, realizing functional structures that ideology would deem impossible. Marcel Duchamp suggested as much when he explored the readymade in the early 20th century and, like a distant echo of his “L.H.O.O.Q.” (1919), Bougatsos’s humorous print “Working Class Bird” (2016) features an appropriated photo of a pigeon perched on a ledge high atop the Empire State Building. The only modification of the original image is a cigarette inserted into the bird’s beak.
What came into focus for me upon viewing “Working Class Bird” was the sense of perspective it yielded — or, rather, the lack of perspective. The whole picture creates a scenario that speaks to a kind of mock heroic elegance. The cigarette stabbed into the pigeon’s mouth looks all the more real for its effusive unreality. Foregrounded against the expanse of New York, Bougatsos’s tough-guy pigeon would insouciantly reduce the city to a toy. Simultaneously, the architectural structure of Manhattan is preserved, despite the impression that it’s merely Lego blocks for the pigeon’s proletarian diversion. What would otherwise be a work of sentimental realism has become urbanely grounded by the flourish of a cigarette.
Ultimately, it’s not inaccurate to call Bougatsos’s artistry Duchampian. Brandishing the utility of objects already made, she redesigns them in accordance with her own work habits. Out of this, a new distribution of experience is produced, one which downplays the evanescence of the product in favor of the person handling it.