Jorge Pardo is, to date, the sculptor of several suites of furniture, various domestic artefacts, a boat, a pier and a house.
His art embraces materiality and provides aesthetic pleasure - yet it resides ultimately in a carefully honed discursive space. It is sculpture because it takes place in space, but it is mental as much as physical space that is paramount. The objects that Pardo brings into the world speculate about their own identity and, metonymically, about the identity of art itself.
If Pardo is a sculptor - rather than a furniture designer, an architect, or a shipwright - then the sculpture he makes might be defined as public sculpture. 'It's the only way to address the problem of "what's art worth today?"', he says. And 'public' in Pardo's scheme of things is a more complex idea than the easy polarisation of gallery versus street, or high versus low, or art versus life - though the terms of these oppositions are clearly brought into play, if only to be complicated in the process. His work is 'public' art primarily because it leaves much of its meaning to the spectator, shifting the emphasis firmly away from the private history of its maker.
Take Pardo's 'furniture', for example. Outdoorsculpture (1995) is a set of 15 identical stools: simple plugs of cylindrical upholstery with a circular base of redwood peeking out at the bottom. Minimal in their bareness yet softened by a jovial orange fabric, the stools are ultra-adaptable (fully washable, they can function as furniture both indoors and outdoors) and amenable to endless permutations - you can choose one on its own or opt for the full complement. They've made appearances as office furniture for his dealer and as extras in the corner of an installation at Rotterdam's Boijmans Museum. Then there was the banana-yellow ottoman, a pleasing kidney-shaped form, placed not in the gallery but on the roof of Thomas Solomon's Garage where it was perfectly sited to provide views across town to the hills of Hollywood. Like Pardo's recent pier in Münster, this piece rejects the idea of a sculpture as something standing apart from the world. Instead, it posits it, in Minimal fashion, as a phenomenon contingent on the viewer's physical interface both with the art object and its surroundings. It is art that is activated only at the moment that the object is physically apprehended by the viewer, and is perceived merely as part of a wider field. Furniture is a useful, perhaps inevitable, analogue for this sense of art that Pardo is probing: it places itself not squarely in front, but around, behind, underneath, the viewer, and forces our gaze out into the world.
Furniture design also supplies Pardo with a useful second language, a readymade vernacular with its own formal values and visual syntax, through which to test the conventional limits of sculpture. Pardo colonises this language as an artist in order to give his audience a familiar way into the work, to prevent it from becoming 'hermetic too quick'. 'I'm trying to do something radically different in a beautifully comfortable way', he says. For shape, space, colour, texture, material, form and function are aesthetic concepts that tend to be understood with greater ease and fewer questions in furniture shops than art galleries. Pardo's 'furniture' finds its historical references in the trajectory of Modernist design stemming from Alvar Aalto in the late 30s, through Isamu Noguchi and Eero Saarinen in the 40s to Arne Jacobsen in the 50s. He favours the fluid biomorphism of this aesthetic over the cold linearity of the Constructivists, or the effusion of the Postmodernists. Swooping curves of bent plywood, faced with monochrome colour laminates or plain wood veneers are made comfortable with elegantly attenuated padding: these tend to be the common elements of Pardo in furniture mode.
During 1996 his ensembles became more complex. Rosa, a collection of exuberantly curvilinear, bleached-wood tables and chairs, furnish an entire restaurant at Leipzig's New Trade Fair. Halley's, Ikeya-Seki, Encke's, a work for Friedrich Petzel Gallery (titled intriguingly after eponymous co-mets), revolves around three variations on a furniture theme. Armless chairs, each moulded from a single strip of bent ply, are placed in relation to glass-topped tables, sometimes full-height, sometimes occasional. One set is illuminated overhead by five gorgeous, hour-glass lampshades; another incorporates a collection of glass vessels. The elements vary but the colour (an opulently varied palette of blues) and the positioning - hugging, in Robert Smithson-style, different corners of the room - remain the same through each configuration. Reading Room, a work for the permanent collection of the Boijmans Museum, is a grand curve of a table: a gleaming redwood surface describing the letter C. It rests on rectangular loops of veneered ply and is matched by a set of cream canvas-cushioned stools. The curve of the table is mirrored visually by a dense circle of sweetly coloured pendant lamps which hang from the low ceiling and suffuse the interior with a warm glow.
Pardo's 'furniture' advances a post-Duchampian debate about the difference between art objects and literal objects in the world, and the role of context and viewer in mediating that difference. He sets out to gauge the minimum requirements for an object to be read as art, before it tips over into something else entirely. To do that, he has to find a position somewhere between the aesthetic indifference of the classic readymade, and the manifest artmaking of the art-and-furniture school. These aren't readymades - everyday objects culled arbitrarily from a stream of identical things and offered up as the index of a moment of artistic decision making - because they are invented. And they are objects as concerned with aesthetic value - in beauty, shape, form - as with utility. Yet their aestheticism is kept under a tight reign by Pardo lest they announce themselves too stridently as 'art' (a sensitivity often lost in the artful furniture of, for example, Richard Artschwager, Scott Burton or Franz West). They maintain a wilfully small level of distinction from 'real' furniture in the world and yet are individuated enough, auratic enough, to pass as art. It is a fine distinction to make perhaps, but it is precisely in this thin space between art-and-not, between being-furniture-and-not, that Pardo's art occurs. And context becomes crucial in activating the play of difference and similarity. In the Boijmans Museum, Pardo's Reading Room enjoys the proximity of a heavyweight sheet-steel Serra: in the Leipzig furniture fair, his cafe is surrounded by trade exhibits. Although different, both settings make perfect sense for Pardo's chameleon-like sculptures.
A 26 foot-long sailing boat stands in the majestic atrium of Chicago's new Museum of Contemporary Art. Its mast soars up into the lofty space, its stem pointing out towards the bordering waters of Lake Michigan. The boat rests on a cradle, as if in dry dock, rendering its sleek contours fully visible in the round. It harmonises perfectly with the interior volume of Josef Paul Kleihues' neo-Modernist Museum: both architecture and yacht are brilliantly clean, precise, light and white. Like the furniture, the boat masquerades as a readymade, and yet it is an object that has been specifically designed by Pardo. He has grafted the mast, keel and interior onto the shell of a Santa Cruz 27, a 70s design legendary for its weightlessness and speed. Moored in a marina or bobbing on the lake, the fully functioning boat could return to the world unrecognisable as art. In its subtle oscillation between real object and art object it works to highlight the contingent roles of both viewer and context in the construction of aesthetic experience.
Upstairs at the Museum, Pardo orchestrated a complimentary project which developed his thoughts on the minimum expectations required for an audience to accept something as art. Rather than focusing on discrete objects, this project used the device of a rapidly changing series of gallery displays in order to stage more or less eccentric relationships between diverse artefacts. Pardo asks how one object may or may not frame another as art - what kind of relationships are we prepared to accept as artistic ones? The displays most literally related to the boat and its construction were perhaps the most delightfully obscure: a group exhibition of 11 glues and adhesives found in the Chicago area, and a display of bent wood objects by Martin Puryear and Frank Gehry from the museum's collection. Artwork by Pardo's nephews, and a group show of work by brothers, literalised the theme of artistic relationships. The inaugural exhibition of the series featured the ultimate context-specific artwork - a 24-foot painting tailor-made by Pardo to co-ordinate with his favourite works from the collection.
Later this year, Pardo opens a companion project for the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. As in Chicago, it consists of two elements: a sculpture that attempts to breach the institutional definition of an artwork, and a curatorial intervention into the Museum's collection. The sculpture in question is a 1,800 square foot house, sited in the Mount Washington area of Los Angeles. Pardo has designed every element, from the kitchen cabinets to the lighting scheme, and will live there when the project is complete.
In local tradition, the house clings on to a hillside, dropping 15 feet from front to back. It is a flat-roofed, wooden-clad, single-storey structure whose Modernist geometries are tempered by the fact that it curls in on itself organically. On the inside of its curve, fully glazed walls offer stunning views down the hill and out to sea, while the outer, redwood facade ensures absolute privacy. The rooms are disposed in a linear fashion like beads on a necklace: each linking fluidly to the next rather than existing as discrete volumes internally sub-dividing the plan. The house has a garage, glass study, kitchen (with a dramatic sunken conversation pit), bedroom and two bathrooms. For the duration of the MOCA exhibition, Pardo will select and install works from the permanent collection in the house and make many of his decisions about interior decoration, such as colour schemes and lighting, in relation to these works.
While the house frames art from the museum's collection, it is itself framed by other houses just as paintings or sculptures are by other works. Pardo's house is physically framed in the immediate locale, by six or seven architect-designed homes in the same redwood vernacular. And it is historically and formally framed, like his furniture, in relation to a Modernist tradition. Los Angeles is famously home to the domestic architecture of Rudolph Schindler (whose own 1922 home has been a particular source of inspiration for Pardo in terms of its formal economy and its articulation of space), Frank Lloyd Wright, Richard Neutra, as well as the remarkable post-war Case Study project that launched architects such as Charles Eames and Craig Ellwood. 1
Museums occasionally collect houses, have been known to reconstruct them, but they've never commissioned a 'real' house as a temporary exhibition from a non-architect. 2 The work grew out of Pardo's desire to create a sculpture that would test the institution's ability to contain it as art - 'how' he asks, 'do you make a work of art that a museum can't handle?' - and in many ways, the issue of how the museum represents the house is precisely the content of the work. Will they treat it as a sculpture, as architecture, as a satellite exhibition space, as a work in the collection or as Jorge Pardo's home? Will it require invigilation, ticketing, security, insurance, conservation, interpretation, educational activities: will it be subject to the full force of the museum machine? And how will its identity shift once the exhibition is over or Pardo decides to move house?
Cynics are likely to dismiss the project as opportunistic: Pardo, will, after all, be housed in perpetuity partly at the museum's expense. But this is to misunderstand the intricate questions about value that the house puts into play. Exchange value - both as real estate and as sculpture - is integral to its complex identity. For, as we've long known, the identity of art (like houses) is at least partly defined by financial value. And yet Pardo's house is more than a Post-modern commodity sculpture. Questions about aesthetic value and use value are at least as relevant to the work: they are all part of the larger problematic that Pardo originally proposed, the problem of 'what's art worth today?' If people enjoy looking at houses, 'then it is an interesting place for art to happen', and Pardo has given us a particularly beautiful house conceived in perfect harmony with its landscape. It is public art that quietly puts to shame the tawdry excesses of the public art tradition. And, most extraordinarily, Pardo's house is public art that can be absolutely confident of its usefulness.
All quotations from Jorge Pardo in conversation with the author.
1. The Case Study project (1945-1962) revolutionised the design of the family home in California, providing individually designed, low-cost, technologically advanced architecture for ordinary people.
2. In the Hodgetts and Fung-designed exhibition 'Blueprints for Modern Living', at MOCA in 1989, two of LA's famous Case Study houses - including Pierre Koenig's cantilevered glass design - were reconstructed inside the museum space.