BY Evan Moffitt in Features | 19 MAR 17
Featured in
Issue 186

Waste Land

How young sculptors Tamara Henderson, Misha Kahn, Jessi Reaves, Sophie Stone and Chris Wolston are imagining domestic life after the apocalypse

BY Evan Moffitt in Features | 19 MAR 17

In January 2017, the Doomsday Clock – the symbolic gauge of civilization’s proximity to collapse – ticked 30 seconds closer to midnight. This was largely caused by US President Donald Trump’s tweet in support of nuclear proliferation but, if things seem particularly close to the brink, it’s not just because of that orange demagogue. Brexit, income inequality, skyrocketing temperatures and rising tides: life as we know it is unsustainable. Some stockpile guns and canned goods while others try to live carbon-free; either way, we are left to imagine what life will be like on a harsher planet. 

Apocalyptic anxieties are nothing new: fear of Armageddon has plagued humanity for millennia. More recently, in the 1970s, the waning promise of the postwar period soured into high unemployment, stagnant wages, an ongoing nuclear stand-off and an environment so polluted with industrial waste that it wavered on the brink of ruin. The decade brought about a rash of fatalist films: cult classics such as The Bed-Sitting Room (1969) and Soylent Green (1973) imagined life on earth after humanity had cannibalized itself, a future never sketched as very distant. It’s an unavoidable theme in today’s cinemas, from Oblivion (2013) to Mad Max: Fury Road (2015). Aside from satisfying our masochistic pleasure in simulated destruction, though, these films picture society and culture radically reformed. Cataclysmic events challenge convention and, in this sense, they present a chance to start afresh. 

Gunnar Aagaard Andersen, Portrait of My Mother’s Chesterfield, 1964, poured polyurethane, 75 × 108 × 126 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Friedman Benda, New York

Postwar artists and designers began to incorporate the aesthetics of decay into their work, finding productive ways to reflect the period’s pervasive sense of sociopolitical, economic and environmental decline. In Gunnar Aagaard Anderson’s groundbreaking Portrait of My Mother’s Chesterfield (1964), a chair made of poured polyurethane foam, the recognizable form of a traditional Chesterfield chair seems to melt into a pile of charred goop, imbuing the sculpture with a sense of loss and decay. Lucas Samaras’s wobbly wire-and-plaster chairs (1969–70) buckle under the weight of invisible bodies, while Howard Meister’s steel versions, such as Nothing Continues to Happen (1981), bear deep fissures and crumbling edges. The prefabricated ruin appeared in architecture, too, with the artificially decomposing facades of the larger BEST stores (1970–83), designed by radical firm Sculpture in the Environment (SITE). As design historian Glenn Adamson put it: ‘The tactic of designing objects that seemed hardwired to self-destruct was both an articulation of the problematics of modernism, and a materialization of the punk slogan “No Future”.’1 Anderson’s Chesterfield is an heirloom for a family with no future, for a home that has burnt to a crisp. Yet, if its state of disintegration belies a certain pessimism, it also radically re-imagines domestic life when its basic props have been destroyed. These designers, Adamson continues, ‘employed deconstruction as a generative methodology, finding liberation in the act of rupture’.2

No designer has found more iconoclastic freedom in this apocalyptic aesthetic than Gaetano Pesce. From the late 1970s, Pesce began experimenting with dyed resin, pouring it to create chairs in a state of perpetual melt. Some of them are too unstable for use. ‘I tried to represent the instability of our times with the Greene Street chair [1980],’ Pesce has said of that work’s eight, wobbly steel legs and resin seat. ‘We correctly assume stability for a chair, but I want people to think about instability.’ His  2016 exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles was a colourful cache of gunked-up alien vessels, each formed from layered drips of resin – though they seemed to be unspooling. Project for an underground city in the age of great contaminations (1971), ‘the remains of a habitat of the year 2000 as found in the year 3000’, transformed one of the galleries at the Museum of Modern Art in New York into a mock subterranean chamber, its walls oozing earthy extrusions of polyurethane. In this space, Pesce’s resin furniture pieces were future ruins, archeological artifacts of the apocalypse. The materials of industrial progress became signs of social and environmental decay.

Sophie Stone, Double Runner (detail), 2017, cotton, sisal, acrylic, house paint, 3.6 × 1.8 m. Courtesy: The Sunroom, Richmond; photograph: Patrick Harkins 

US artist Jessi Reaves is a radical recycler, and her functional sculptures expound an ethics of luxury in the age of global warming. Taking notes from predecessors including Andersen, Pesce and Samaras, she combines ruined modernist furniture pieces with raw industrial materials, an irreverent mishmash of high and low junk. The organic contours of a chair by Marcel Breuer of the Eameses’ take on unsettling implications when rendered in cut-up yellow foam or coil-spring mattresses, burned plush-pile carpet or mesh netting, raw plywood or rusted car doors. We are all always eating from the rubbish bin of capitalism, to paraphrase philosopher Slavoj Zizek; Reaves furnishes this condition, sculpting human utility from human refuse.

While working in an upholstery shop in Portland, Oregon, Reaves would dissect modernist sofas and chairs and turn them inside out, reducing their padded-leather seats to raw foam-on-steel frame. Many of her works simultaneously expose the rigid skeletons of modernist furniture and the voluptuous biomorphism of their guts; foam is cinched to combine the cold, curving steel of Butter Egg Chair (2014), for example, with sensual ridges reminiscent of a meringue. Maraschino Fairy (2014) is a Josef Hoffmann chair clothed in a sheer, pink-silk stocking; the large tears in the fabric make the slip appear like a layer of sloppy make-up: masculinist modernism in feminine drag. These two works featured in Reaves’s ambitious solo show at Bridget Donahue in May 2016. There, modernism was seriously hobbled: classic, mid-century ergonomic furniture in steel, wood and plastic had been hacked to pieces and reassembled with bits of rough industrial waste, more peg-leg than prosthetic. Many were crusted with a homemade sawdust paste, which woodworkers use to smooth out imperfections, giving them the appearance of being infested by termites. Reaves’s work doesn’t editorialize but, sitting in Maraschino, it was hard not to wonder if modernism hadn’t maimed itself – its utopian ambitions stunted by its associations with chauvinism, militarism and environmental decay.

Chris Wolston, Puddle Jumper, 2016, sand-cast aluminium, 114 × 38 × 36 cm. Courtesy: the artist and The Future Perfect, New York; photograph: Andres Montaño

Reaves attended the Rhode Island School of Art and Design, where she first studied furniture design before switching to painting. Sophie Stone, a fellow painting student, began weaving rugs from discarded scrap carpets in her final year of undergraduate study; several of these accompanied Reaves’s sculptures in their show at Del Vaz Projects, a small Los Angeles apartment gallery, in January 2016. There, coffee-stained pink ply intersected with the yellow sheen of shredded plastic tarp; the scrappy, mouldering underside of a carpet criss-crossed with surface remnants of an elegant yet savaged Persian rug. Stone’s work gave the show a literal and metaphorical foundation, accentuating the gallery’s dual domestic function and making Reaves’s mutant furniture appear supremely cozy. (I have never felt so comfortable reclining on a bed of trash.)

Another of Reaves and Stone’s classmates, Misha Kahn, revels in the rubbish dump. His Pig Bench (2012) – resemb­ling a sawn-log seat with candy-coloured bark or, perhaps, a trough for slop-feeding swine – was formed by mixing small bits of plastic garbage with urethane resin and dye; one leg, festooned with pink-resin spikes, resembles a mineral stalactite. Kahn’s cabinets are even wilder accumulations: The Scrappy One (2016) – made from plastic, metal, wood, tile and leather bits woven together with dried grasses – would feel at home in a post-punk, post-apocalyptic film such as City of Lost Children (1995). The Wild One China Cabinet (2016) is astronaut meets bushman: its two round, eyeball-like glass doors are comically camouflaged in a thick fur of dried grass collected from the plains of Swaziland. In Kahn’s vision of the future, we’ve returned to traditional crafts, save the odd salvaged element of lost, high-gloss technology. Chris Wolston, Kahn’s college roommate, applies this logic to the post-industrial junkyard: his aluminium chairs and tables – sand-cast, using a traditional Colombian technique, from scrap metal collected in the barrios of Medellín – resemble lodes that have filled deep fissures in mountains of metamorphic rock, formed by the intense heat and pressure of the earth’s molten core. This might be what remains of our cities after a nuclear attack, steel-frame office towers reduced to shimmering, jagged crusts.

Misha Kahn, The Wild One China Cabinet, 2016, lavimisu, banana leaves, cactus, bone, wood, grasses and glass, 224 × 183 × 81 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Friedman Benda, New York

Canadian artist Tamara Henderson’s practice extends far beyond functional sculpture and furniture objects to embroidery, painting and video. Her quasi-domestic sets serve as elaborate stages for filmed performances that personify everyday objects and tease out the formalist magic from arrangements of collected clutter. Henderson develops her works from notes she takes while under hypnosis, and the results are a dream-like hodgepodge, imbued with the chaos of the natural world and postmodern disarray.

Delicate kelp fans and seaweed blades are sealed in the translucent plastic coating of Henderson’s algae-green and pale-blue Atlantica chair (2014), whose accompanying table of steel strips undulates as if caught in an ocean current; this is furniture in flux, a clear riff on Pesce. On the table lies a phone receiver submersed in lead – a riposte, perhaps, to Ron Arad’s 1983 Concrete Stereo, a sound-system sunk in cement. When the chair was first shown as part of her installation Resorting, for Frieze London in 2014, it was part of a relaxation environment that incorporated materials like sea-sand pulp (along with the kelp) to evoke an island vacation, the phone offering access to a travel agent. But the line has gone dead and the sculptures look too waterlogged for a beach resort – except one swallowed by rising tides.

For her 2015 exhibition with Julia Feyrer at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia, Henderson gave several interior environments – including a bar and a hotel room – a dystopian twist. Profiles of the artists’ bodies were cut from two round hotel beds and the holes filled with clear resin, lit from beneath with gels coloured to match their personal-aura readings. A bedside table crusted with sand, seashells and cracked plaster eggs, eerily saturated with green lamplight, bears two mugs from Waves, a Vancouver coffee house with the slogan: ‘A Place to Connect’. If Henderson and Feyrer’s hotel room is a place to connect, it is one in which to pursue psychic bliss while the world continues to crumble.

Tamara Henderson, Garden Photographer Scarecrow, 2016, brass, plaster, Spandex, canvas, paint, photo, reflectors, wood, sand, glue, plastic, 35mm film, seashells, weights, lace, rope, ribbon, feathers, dimensions variable. Courtesy: the artist and Rodeo, London; photograph: Ruth Clark

Season’s End (2016), Henderson’s recent solo presentation at Glasgow International and REDCAT in Los Angeles, evoked a cult thriving among future ruins. At the centre of her installation, Henderson placed a drunken jalopy, barely capable of standing on its own two wheels – its roof a limp fish net, its boot lid a slab of warped cardboard. The car’s open, salvaged door is stuffed with junk, and two speakers are mounted to its rear-view window. This is no Mad Max monster truck but the rickety auto of a crackpot preacher  or, perhaps, a lowrider in some dystopian future. The car sat parked in a field of equally cultish silk embroidered robes, propped up like a procession of kimono-clad California hippies: new age spiritualism for a Brave New World.

The world may not be ending quite yet, but it is undergoing profound changes. Our homes structure the way we live so fundamentally that they both reflect and shape our identity; by importing a sense of global crisis to this sheltered space, Henderson, Kahn, Reaves, Stone and Wolston transform domestic environments into laboratories for new and radical ways of living. They envision a home that is what we might call ‘post-nuclear’; in their vision of the future, economic, sociopolitical or environmental collapse parallels a failure of other fundamental institutions. Basic social concepts such as gender and sexuality have already begun to unravel; families no longer always look like they once did. For these artists, the threat of nuclear or environmental holocaust represents a horizon of subjective possibility, a moment for radical reset. If they design for a future in ruins, it is amongst those ruins that we may finally find freedom.

1) Glenn Adamson, ‘Postmodernism: Style and Subversion’, in Postmodernism: Style and Subversion, 1970–1990, eds. Glenn Adamson and Jane Pavitt, V&A Publishing,
London, 2011, p.36
2) Glenn Adamson, exhibition text for ‘Static’ at Friedman Benda Gallery, New York, 2017 

Tamara Henderson is an artist who lives and works in Vancouver, Canada. In 2016, she had solo exhibitions at Glasgow International, REDCAT, Los Angeles, and the Art Gallery of Edmonton, and her work was included in group shows at Moderna Museet, Stockholm, Evelyn Yard, London, and Central Art Garage, Ottowa. In 2017, she will have a solo exhibition at the Oakville Galleries, Oakville, and the Serpentine Gallery, London.

Misha Kahn is an artist who lives and works in New York, USA. In May 2017, his work will be included in ‘DNA 10’ at Friedman Benda Gallery, New York.

Jessi Reaves is an artist who lives and works in New York, USA. In 2016, she had solo exhibitions at Bridget Donahue and Sculpture Center and her work is currently featured in the 2017 Whitney Biennial (all New York). This month, she has a two-person exhibition with Ginny Casey at Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia, USA, and, in September, she will have a solo show at Herald St., London, UK.

Sophie Stone lives and works in New York, USA. In 2016, her work was included in group exhibitions at Del Vaz Projects, Los Angeles, USA, Jack Chiles, New York, and Johannes Vogt, New York, among others. In 2017, she will have shows at The Range, Colorado, USA, and Redling Fine Art, Los Angeles.

Chris Wolston lives and works in New York, USA. In 2016, he had a solo exhibition at Collective Design Fair, New York, and his solo show at Patrick Parrish, New York, will open in May.

Evan Moffitt is a writer, editor and critic based in New York, USA.