When photos from Bernie Kaminiski’s solo show filled my Instagram feed last fall, I almost swiped past them, mistaking the TV-producer-turned-artist’s papier-mâché re-creations of quotidian objects as the real deal. Though these to-scale sculptures of junk drawer miscellany (ketchup packets, ballpoint pens, orange-handled scissors) and other household items (spice jars, cookbooks, a potted plant) closely mimic their real-life counterparts with exquisite detail, a longer look revealed the texture of the paint and paper and the endearing human quirks of hand-drawn typography. Making these objects started as a quarantine project for Kaminiski, while his typical television projects were on hold.
As pandemic lockdowns started, so did a cultural shift in our relationships to domestic spaces and the objects that populate them. Flour disappeared from grocery store shelves as US kitchens filled with artful baked goods, like loaves of sourdough and focaccia embellished with thinly sliced vegetables in colorful designs. Sales for jigsaw puzzles, house paint, and craft supplies spiked. People gathered over Zoom for happy hours and dance parties and craft nights. Home became the center of life in a more intense way for many, and hands-on household projects reigned supreme. In the wake of these periods of house-bound isolation, art materials and motifs derived from the home seem charged with new meaning and a searching sense of reinvention.
In a full-circle move, the last art exhibit I saw in the “before time” was Making Knowing: Craft in Art, 1950–2019 at The Whitney, and when I ventured out to museums again, the show (which ran through early 2022) was my first stop. Through the cloistered days spent indoors, cooking every meal at home and cleaning every dish in a relentless loop, my mind kept wandering back to artist Liza Lou’s behemoth beaded “Kitchen,” a 168-square-foot, scale sculpture of a kitchen crafted from millions of glittering glass beads, which served as the de facto centerpiece of the exhibition. Trappings of domesticity fill the glimmering work — a plate-piled sink, a pie coming out of the oven, dust pan, grocery list, table strewn with breakfast fixings. A sense of entrapment lingers in its gravity, a feeling closely associated with quarantine. More than a quarter-century after Lou glued on the final bead, “Kitchen”’s commentary feels as sharp as ever. “I think it’s so interesting how you can never look at a work of art outside of the history and time you’re living in,” Lou said in a Hyperallergic interview. “It’s always, always, always informed by what’s happening around you.”
Sculptor Tom Friedman, who sometimes uses commonplace items as art materials (such as pencils, plastic cups, and tube socks), also drew from the realm of home cooking for his 2020 sculpture “Looking Up.” The skyward-gazing, 10-foot-tall figure stood outdoors on Rockefeller Center’s campus for the first couple months of 2021, after being installed on President Biden’s Inauguration Day, a day the artist says he viewed with optimism, as the start of a new era. The crumpled texture of the sculpture’s gleaming, cast stainless-steel surface came from a mash-up of aluminum pie plates, baking tins, and roasting pans that Friedman sourced from grocery stores. In the same cultural moment that pandemic bakers started pursuing professional ambitions and swamping culinary schools with interest, according to the New York Times, this sculpture stood on Fifth Avenue like the human embodiment of baking, in a stance exuding hope for the future.
Installed inside Turn Gallery, an art space with serious apartment vibes, Bernie Kaminiski’s solo show had a trompe l’oeil feel, mingling real-life and handmade elements in the venue’s “Parlour Room.” I walked right past a beige intercom before realizing it was constructed from paper, while a silver laptop on the gallery’s velvety sofa, it turned out, was real and belonged to the gallery attendant. Warm and inviting, the space brimmed with deeply human particulars. Sometimes, Kaminiski told It’s Nice That, he’ll pick an item simply “to see if [he] can figure out how to do it.” Something magic happens in the metamorphosis from an anonymous mass-produced object to a tactile, handmade version, with traces of the maker’s hands, made all the more the charming with funny mash-ups (a hamburger on a desk, a slice of cake communing with a stack of tattered National Geographic magazines).
Days after Kaminiski’s show closed in October 2022, Meret Oppenheim’s retrospective opened at the Museum of Modern Art. Splashed across the marketing materials for the eclectic and expansive exhibition were images of the Swiss artist’s most famous work, from 1936: a porcelain cup, saucer, and spoon set covered in tan gazelle fur, simply titled “Object.” Exhibition texts describe the piece as “perhaps the single most notorious Surrealist object.”
Like Lou’s “Kitchen,” Oppenheim’s “Object” echoes through the decades with the repetition of daily domestic rituals, in this case making a cup of tea or coffee. The fur makes the dishware feel comfy or absurd or uneasy, depending on your view — feelings associated with COVID nesting. As real estate reporter Ronda Kaysen wrote in the New York Times in December 2021, “Americans have spared little expense over the past two years turning their homes into cozy havens, ambitiously redesigning their spaces in an effort to weather a pandemic in comfort. But at some point, even the fluffiest throw pillows start to feel suffocating.”
And yet, Oppenheim’s way of morphing ordinary kitchenware into something extraordinary — an enduring Surrealist icon, no less — speaks to an urge for transformation. Her approach blends a contrast of form, texture, and utility infused with a winking sense of humor.
During a grinding era of hardship after hardship, pandemic and “tripledemic” and endemic, the pull of everyday domestic objects seems to keep popping up in sculptural forms in museum and gallery shows with even pre-pandemic pieces shining in a different light and new works appearing as handmade harbingers of something, dare I say, hopeful. By reimagining the commonplace in delightfully weird and witty ways, pandemic creativity feels like an invitation to seek beauty and possibility, even in the humble, imperfect, and seemingly ordinary.