A Second Life for MAD

The re-opening of the Museum of Arts and Design occasions a fresh look at the new building and its (dis)contents.

poster for

"Second Lives: Remixing the Ordinary" Exhibition

at Museum of Arts & Design
in the Midtown area
This event has ended - (2008-09-27 - 2009-04-19)

In Reviews by Samuel Holleran 2008-09-29 print

The new Museum of Arts and Design on Columbus Circle works hard to seem cool. One might accuse it of trying a little too hard, and ending up with the sort of cloying hipness that’s come to be associated with the over-swank eateries in the vicinity. This doesn’t mean that it’s not worth the trip up to 59th Street. Despite all the brouhaha surrounding it, the new building, which retains the dimensions of Edward Durell Stone’s late-modernist original, is rather attractive and the museum’s collection should prove interesting to a wide variety of people.

The three current exhibits, “Permanently MAD: Revealing the Collection,” “Elegant Armor: The Art of Jewelry” and “Second Lives: Remixing the Ordinary,” do a good job of showcasing the museum’s collection and give us an idea of where they plan to go in the future. For those who crave crafty (in the pejorative sense) there is plenty to satisfy in the way of cups ‘n saucers, brooches and the like, but there are also a number of ostensibly functional pieces that explore issues of identity, culture and politics. Such work proves that politically engaged pieces can be craft, and help us move beyond tired examples of Quaker woodworking and blown glass into a more critical applied arts. Examples of this new take include the British artist Stephen Dixon’s 21 Questions, a series of dinner plates based on the twenty-one nations that the United States has bombed since 1945, and Judith Schaechter’s off-kilter use of stained glass narratives.

Installation view, Jill Townsley ''Spoons'' (2008); Long-Bin Chen ''Reading Chair with Buddha Heads (2007); Donald Lipski ''Spilt Milk No. 99 (2008). Photo © Richard Barnes.

The building plays a large part in the accessibility of these works; transoms illuminate glass and ceramic works and stairways feature window vitrines at each landing. Schaechter’s lead and glass panels are illuminated by sunlight streaming in from the north. The architects obviously thought a great deal about the works that their building would house. The museum’s narrow site plan (similar to that of the New Museum) necessitates the tight packing of shows, but the space never feels claustrophobic due in part to the vast quantity of sunlight and beautiful views of Central Park and Columbus Circle.

Sonya Clark, ''Madam C. J. Walker'' (large), 2008. 10' 2'' x 7' 3'' x 25''. Photo © Taylor Dabney

The temporary show “Second Lives,” which occupies the museum’s third and fourth floors, is a nice compliment to the precision-worked jewels of “Elegant Armor.” An enormous range of objects, including latex examination gloves, phone books, clothing labels, dishes, records, nails, eyeglasses and chopsticks, are appropriated from daily life. There is certainly a wow factor in almost all of the pieces, whether it’s Long-Bin Chen’s massive Buddha head carved from the Yellow Pages or Donna Marcus’ Dodecahedron, rendered in metal colanders. However, the exhibition often gets stuck in its inability to go beyond a basic formal appreciation for funky materials.

There is nothing wrong with attractive objects, but for the price of admission one expects more than a Droog design showroom. A few of the works do stand out, though, and provoke discussion through their use of objects. One great case in point being Sonya Clark’s Madam C.J. Walker, a huge halftone portrait made out of plastic combs. Its subject is the first Black woman to become a millionaire (her fortune came from a line of hair care products). Another example is Terese Agnew’s Portrait of A Textile Worker, a massive quilt depicting a young Bangladeshi garment worker, rendered entirely out of clothing labels. In these select works the materials become more than just a clever trope; they help us engage with real issues such as race, labor and consumer waste.

Samuel Holleran

Samuel Holleran. Samuel Holleran is an illustrator, graphic artist, and cartoonist. He studied at the New School and the Universiteit van Amsterdam, and is currently at the Cooper Union. Having written on the history of the radical right in the Netherlands, reporting on the arts comes as a great pleasure. His interests include backgammon and (all varieties of) food. » See other writings

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