BY Dale McFarland in Reviews | 05 MAY 99
Featured in
Issue 46

Martin Boyce

BY Dale McFarland in Reviews | 05 MAY 99

Like an archaeologist or cultural anthropologist, Martin Boyce unearths and reinterprets Modernist design. Appropriating classic furniture of the 40s and 50s, he sets about exposing the ultimate failure of an idea that was at least in part based on the utopian egalitarianism of 'good design' being available to all, not just to those wealthy enough to afford it. The works in this exhibition seem to mock the apparent impossibility of this notion, but as reflections on lost opportunities and unfulfilled good intentions, they also have an elegiac quality. Boyce treats his subject as both an artefact of a recent but deluded past and as a symbol of an anxious desire to keep the outside world at bay.

On the ground floor of the gallery, Boyce has presented a series of photographs of chairs by Charles and Ray Eames and Arne Jacobsen. Each image is almost identical - only the chair is changed. Double Red Disaster (in advance) (1999) shows a pair of elegant red leather and chrome chairs designed by the Eameses in the early 50s, jammed beneath a door handle, their front legs lifted from the ground - a makeshift and somewhat ineffectual barrage against intrusion. It's an almost cinematic image of panic, but also incredibly static, as are the other works in the series: Double Black disaster (in advance) and Red Disaster (in advance) (both 1999). But the photographs are a little too didactic to imply calamity, their bloodlessness alluding to a threat that is presumed rather than actual; a creeping paranoia about what's on the other side of the door.

A work in the basement imitates an exhibit from an ethnographic museum: Now I've Got Real Worry (mask & L-bar) (1998) looks like an object fashioned from miscellaneous junk that might be venerated by a mysterious and primitive cargo cult. However, the weirdly expressionless mask is created from a leg splint designed by the Eameses for wounded sailors of the US navy in 1943, while its accompanying metal rod, which resembles a ceremonial baton, is part of an Eames storage unit. The apparent exoticism is replaced by the ultra sophistication of what have become iconic objects of 20th-century design. These are contemporary fetishes, objects that symbolise refined taste and a particularly unmagical awareness of current trends in home decoration.

A small, framed screen print of words, House Blessing (1999) on the downstairs wall quotes Joan Didion's The White Album (1979): 'God bless the corners of this house/And bless the lintel best/And bless the hearth and bless the board/And bless each place of rest/And bless each crystal windowpane that lets the/starlight in/And bless each door that opens wide,/to stranger as to kin'. The print looks like a sentimental motto over a country mantlepiece, but its juxtaposition with the other works in the show taints it with insincerity. Its apparent generosity becomes meaningless, framed within a darker view of contemporary domesticity; a desire for separation, remoteness and retreat behind your own four walls, even if they were designed by Charles and Ray Eames.