Review of "Formed to Function?" at John Michael Kohler Art Center
February 24, 2003
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
"Seeing not believing in Kohler exhibit "
by James Auer

Sheboygan - What our eyes see and our fingers touch are, more often than not, two different matters.

When lace handkerchiefs fluttering in the breeze turn out to have been cast out of lead crystal, and a doorknob is actually a mixture of soap and germs, things start happening in our brains that cause us to doubt, or at least mediate among, our senses.

Expectations are thwarted. Convenient answers to conventional questions are knocked askew. Nothing is as it appears. Our sense of security is shattered.

Exactly this is taking place through May 11 as the ever-inventive John Michael Kohler Arts Center plays host to a group exhibit that asks the question, "Formed to Function?"

Bewilderment is part of the equation here. So is confusion. And trepidation.

What are we to think when we come across a northern Indian rug that hasn't been woven, but has been fabricated out of a huge decal, transferred onto a rectangle of porcelain plates by Marek Cecula of New York?

Or a Persian rug that has been put together out of no fewer than 18,000 Letraset Tria marker caps, obtained as a gift from the maker by another compulsive Manhattanite, Devorah Sperber.

Or a portable bathroom, complete with shower, sink and toilet, constructed entirely out of silk by the Korean conceptualist Do-Ho Suh.

Or a Taiwanese woman's bridal dowry of slippers and pillows, replicated in pure, pierced silver by Wisconsin resident Hai-Chi Jihn.

Or seemingly usable sponges, cunningly shaped out of balsa wood, then painted by the devious hand of Californian George Stoll.

Use vs. art

The point of all this, according to the Kohler's curator, Leslie Umberger, is that fine craft does have a place in contemporary art - and that one of its tasks is to encourage us to confront and question our preconceptions.

When is a man-made object an artwork, and when is it merely a utilitarian product? How do material and concept determine function? Is the use to which a manufactured article is put the determining factor in its definition?

Finally, does it matter whether identical objects are made on an assembly line or by a skilled crafter?

These aren't easy issues to address or to answer, even in a show as smartly tongue-in-cheek as this one. Once the chuckling has subsided, the questioning begins.

A case in point: The "Futensils" of an art-metal worker named Rebecca Scheer.

The title here comes from the fact that it is futile even to try to eat with Scheer's meticulously crafted utensils: a teaspoon whose bowl has been split open, a table fork whose tines fold backward. They simply won't hold food.

Or, equally alluring and unusable, Lesley Haas' toe shoes, which would be ideal attire for a prima ballerina except for one fact: They've been sewn together out of sheets of papyrus.

And not just any kind of papyrus: papyrus made out of laboriously cut strips of beets and sweet potatoes.Or consider the "Candlelight Bulbs" of Allison Smith. They look exactly like functioning light bulbs, but they are in actuality candles molded out of beeswax and cotton - a means of returning a contemporary object "to its own historical referent," as the artist enjoys putting it.

Tricks up sleeves

It's an old Kohler trick: to ring as many changes as possible on a single theme, toying with the viewer by employing a different stratagem with each new effort.

Materials change, methods alter, impressions coalesce, but the ultimate result is a teasing kind of sensory pleasure - and just a touch of happy bewilderment.

Take a look at the elaborate fabric-and-metal dress being displayed by "fashion artist" Cat Chow. On the surface it's elegant, manifestly wearable. In truth it's made up out of nothing more than a lengthy strip of zipper.

Claudia Matzko's violin bows also look fully functional. In truth, however, they have been undone by the fact that Matzko has cut the horsehair strands, rendering the instruments mute.

Thus, we are forced to start what Matzko calls a "new discourse" about the violin's beauty and utility, quite apart from its purpose.

My own favorite works in the show don't fit, strictly speaking, into the idea of art as a literal imitation of - and commentary on - life.

One is Jean Blackburn's "Template," a symbolic interpretation of the family in which a full-size rocking chair has been stripped of its elements in order to build a child-size replica.

The resultant tableau - two pieces, one whole, one wounded - is somehow both touching and courageous.

Thread of truth

Another worthwhile work is "First Aid," a tongue-in-cheek device that dispenses lengths of red thread to be tied around injured fingers.

Thus, it makes relevant all over again the belief that a cut thumb or forefinger will heal more quickly if a few inches of bright red thread have been wound around it.

In the end, "Formed to Function?" sparks the observer to serious thought - and, at least in this writer's case, the realization that art is everywhere, and that Andy Warhol only scraped the surface of the illusionistic barrel when he made his own, ultra-detailed Brillo boxes.

By the same token, however, the exhibit is almost too clever for its own good.It rings every conceivable change on its chosen topic and makes the same point again and again though ingenuity and digital dexterity. Inevitably, the final effect is of a brilliant blur.

At once dramatic and didactic, it represents such a concentration of impressive good taste and imposing brain power that it makes the viewer feel vaguely intimidated.

The merest touch of leavening crudity might have made the show less of an exercise in high-flown theory and more of a crowd pleaser.But it's a wonder of subtle wit for all that.

"Formed to Function?" will have a free, public opening reception from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday . Activities include a gallery talk, music, refreshments and workshops for children and adults.

E-mail James Auer at version of this story appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on Feb. 24, 2003.

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