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Furnished Room

Two new School 33 shows reconfigure home décor and reimagine the world from above

M. Angelo Arnold's "Not Today"

By Bret McCabe | Posted 1/6/2010

Something strange is definitely afoot in Shannon Donovan's wall-mounted porcelain and earthenware works at School 33. Her three "Hubcap Portraits" and the wall-covering "Exuberance Is Better Than Taste" are ostentatious and tacky, and feel intentionally so. "Hubcap Portrait: Chintz" is this fuchsia, lavender, and canary-yellow design of earthenware that suggests a place setting-qua-floral arrangement: a round dish at the center with colorful curves of ceramic doilies arcing out from it and four square utility-box covers at the compass points. It's garish yet frilly, reminiscent of those precious but useless home décor gifts you get from aunts after you've been living with your significant other for years without getting married.

"Hubcap Portrait: Chintz" doesn't stay merely chintzy for long, though, as something about it feels oddly unsettled and disheveled. The ceramic doilies swirl from the center less in a pretty way and more like a shattered mirror, and that fuchsia feels less quaint iris violet and more healed-scar purplish. The piece is quaint with a serious chip on its shoulder, as if Ladies' Home Journal hoping to run into Martha Stewart Living in a dark alley.

An assumed generational divide separating the traditional LHJ from the more today(ish) MSL in the domestic arts is the source of tension in both Donovan's works and the Functionless Form Functional Décor group show as a whole--purely in terms of visual communication. The four artists--Donovan, M. Angelo Arnold, Chiara Keeling, and Allison Reimus--turn to the visual language of what looks like previous generations of decorative art and transform them into contemporary ideas. They're not obliquely tackling the so-called craft/fine art divide as much as they're taking the quotidian visual wallpaper of their parents' generation as the baseline of their working ideas.

It's an idea most explicitly suggested by Allison Reimus' paintings. Her seven canvases here all feel like boisterous interpretations of opulent interiors, smorgasbords of totally bitching wallpaper and brightly colored walls transformed into uninhabited rooms, surfaces, spaces. Hot and ephemeral is a curiously hard vibe to pull off, and it's the creeping tone that permeates Reimus' works. "Beverly Hills Imagined (for Dorothy Draper)" name checks the unshy American interior decorating maven and depicts a gaudy (read that as: "blue-blood fabulous") composition of leafy green carpeting, textured golden walls, and some kind of obtuse round settee. It reads less as a place, though, and more of mood and feeling, and Reimus' paintings hit that same experiential region of the brain as abstractions. In fact, her works' overall effect is like what you'd imagine an abstract expressionist might turn out if raised entirely inside Radley Metzger movie sets.

Chiara Keeling works a similar sort of iconography update in her mixed-media pieces, but comes at them more as a remixer. Her two fabric and acrylic panels freely blend surfaces, textures, and vocabularies into her compositions. "Toledo" features paisley fabric, gold embroidery floss, and repeated patterns--in battle red and royal navy--and becomes a noisy design that feels like the loudest and most expensive holiday wrapping job at a high-end department store. "Castile-Leon" uses softer hues, but churns out an even more restless frame, thanks to a white-lightning burst of forking paths shooting through the left half of the composition.

Such artfully harsh disruptions of an otherwise ornamental surface is something also witnessed in Eric Garner's solo show Seen From Above in School 33's upstairs members' gallery. His small paintings--most squares smaller than an album cover, a few as large as oversize cereal boxes--all feature overhead views of grand civil engineering feats turned mundane by their ordinary everyday familiarity: cloverleaf intersections, multilane highways, urban intersections, suburban subdivision layouts. It's landscape turned ornamental visual design with the photorealistic treatment occasionally interrupted by odd design elements, such as a series of circumscribed circles running across the top of "Highway With Five Targets."

The minor disruptions feel extraneous on the small canvases, but when Garner opens up his compositions to more and more outside noise, the results are more engaging. At the center of "Coffee Makes You Cough" is an overhead view of a perpendicular intersection with on and off ramps, essentially forming a cross in the middle of the canvas. It doesn't neatly divide the panel into four quadrants, but Garner nevertheless surrounds the image with snatches of visual ideas. At top is a series of numbers, at bottom is the title and "porcupines are made of" written out in script on lined paper, as if an elementary school writing assignment. Running down the left third of the painting is a repeating design pattern, down the right third of the painting are three vertically stacked boxes, each containing a different element--including one that looks like a larval something or other as seen through a microscope. The painting doesn't entirely come together into some articulate whole, but the cavalier assortment of ideas--from advertising bluntness and decorative flourish to the planar world of comic books, where a mere two dimensions are needed to create entirely new universes--suggests an intriguing breaking away of form.

And radically re-imaging the familiar is what shapes the most eye-catching pieces in Functionless Form. M. Angelo Arnold's sculptures take the already present anthropomorphism of furniture--as in, chairs have arms and legs, a bed has a foot and a head, etc.--and unleashes comically memorable pieces of household impracticality. His five sculptures totally redesign chairs, drawers, and sofas into objects of curious personality. For "Hide and Seek," he has practically tried to cram a sofa into a vertical chest of drawers, and the result looks like a fat man trying to sausage himself into a pair of skinny jeans. "Not Today" is a chair altered such that its arms and legs make it impossible for anybody to sit in, and ends up looking like a cross parent completely unamused by a child's most recent antic. Funnier still is the ribald "Loved Seat," an otherwise ordinary plush green upholstery love seat altered such that it's bent over, as if trying--and failing--to fellate itself. As furniture, Arnold's pieces are positively pointless; as impractically furniture-sized artworks they're wisecrackingly fun.

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