MAY 6 – MAY 28, 1988


In his writings and architectural projects of the early 1960s, Robert Venturi proposed a new program for architecture that amounted to heresy for modernist architects: he celebrated the psychological or fantastic elements of popular architecture. According to Venturi’s by-now famous formulation, kitschy decoration, Pop imagery, and huge signs on little sheds constituted vivid forms of architectural expression that had been repressed by the strictures of modernism. Thus, instead of venerating the masterpieces of architectural history, Venturi sought meaning in such mass-cultural monuments as the Las Vegas strip, fast-food restaurants, neon signage, theme parks, and roadside culture in general. Aesthetically, these styles offered a way out of the functionalist austerity of modernism; politically, these critically dismissed forms were, for Venturi, the portent of a new, populist architecture.

Venturi’s near-parodic enfranchisement of “vulgar” design undercut the psycho-moralist idealism of much modernist architecture, but this disinterest in the economic motivations, the spectacular manipulations, and the fake egalitarianism—in short, the corporate ideology—of commercial architecture cast doubt on his own criticality. Venturi was from the start so concerned with the appropriation of style he never really addressed the complex of social, political, psychological and economic motives and rewards that animate the representational system of mass culture.

Today, many artists and designers originally inspired by Venturi’s theories have attempted to move beyond his proposals: on the one hand to extend his investigation of the symbolic and critical potential of commercial design; on the other hand to return to some of the ideological implications of modernism that his critique tended to sweep aside. One of the most adept at addressing these undeveloped issues in Venturi’s work is the artist Vikky Alexander. Her art works examine how the formal signs of architecture, interior design, photography and graphic design reveal and shape meaning in our culture.

For the past year or so, Alexander has investigated these issues through the manufacture of glass sculptures. Her rigidly geometric objects pick up directly from the Venturian line, not by appropriating the forms of mass culture, but by examining the psychological spectacle of commercial design and architecture. The glass sculptures themselves appear to be exaggeratedly modernist objects; they replicate, in Minimalist fashion, the forms of domestic furniture: a bed, two chairs, and three tables. They are composed of simple planes that conform to gridded proportions; the tables are like open cubes, the chairs are like cubes with one side extended upward. Full-size, but non-functional, they are made of thin glass and would not withstand the weight of a human body. Though representational, these furnishings have no surface decoration. In short, the objects themselves, in their aesthetic elegance, seem to reject Venturi’s populism for an elitist modernism.

But Alexander’s concern is not so much with the objects themselves as with their setting. In the original installation in Calgary, Alexander situated the glass chairs on a low platform before a wall that had been painted a peach color. On the back side of the freestanding wall was another platform, painted a turquoise blue and exhibiting the bed and end tables. This dramatic presentation gave viewers the distinct sense that they had stepped into a designer showroom. Not only were the conventional connotations of the art gallery displaced, but they were replaced by unsettling references to the commodified nature of the objects displayed so prominently. Pinpoint spotlights flashing across the glittering surfaces of the furniture heightened the consumerist appeal.

On another level, it was strange to experience the odd tension between notions of public display and ostensibly private space. After all, the two-sided, two-toned platform divided the space into “rooms” exhibiting trappings of domestic use. But what little sense there was of a private domestic space remained fragile, precious—not only because of the tactile nature of the glass, but because of the open-sided display and inauthenticity made the “home” seem like a dollhouse. This way of drawing attention to deliberate expressions of artificiality is a key component in all of Alexander’s work.

In this case, Alexander’s use of glass related to her earlier use of formica and wood laminates; she is intrigued by the fact that these materials reveal their artificiality when viewer from the side. The glass sculptures define themselves principally through line since the planes are articulated only by their edges. Thus, the sharp black edges of the chairs are like the shop drawings from which they are manufactured: abstractions. Alexander frequently plays on the paradox these works illustrate: that a line drawing is both an abstract representation and a negation. And like drawing, Alexander’s chairs are merely signs that “stand for” furniture.

These works differ most from modernist design objects in their deliberate rejection of functionality. Although these objects resemble chairs and beds, their evident insubstantiality and fragility reminds the viewer that they are fantasy objects. Needless to say, there is also something implicitly humorous about the overdetermination of these works and their setting. This whimsical aspect is emphasized by an enlarged postcard that was exhibited with the furniture. It showed a perfectly Venturian image: a punning literalization of an icehouse. There was a baronial room in an ice cavern in which all the furnishings were made of ice: nature and the replication of the domestic.

The ice cave with its furniture provides a wry comment on modern architecture, particularly the glass houses of Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson. But on a more subtle level Alexander challenges the specific use of glass in modernism, and recalls the whole dialectic between mature and the city that courses through the history of modern architecture.

In Modernism glass was associated with two principle effects, the display of objects (looking in) and the display of nature (looking out). Thus the paradigmatic forms of modernist architecture were, at one extreme, the glass-sheathed skyscraper, and, at the other extreme, the glass house. The glass skyscraper was, in effect, the illogical expansion of a logical component of commercial architecture: the glass shop window. The expansion from shop window’s street-level viewing to skyscraper’s multi-storied display of services and activity constituted modernism’s finest metaphor. But the function of the window, in this case, remained essentially intact.

Alexander examined this use of the shop window in an installation for the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York in 1985. In a billboard-like shop window overlooking the street, the artist places six typographic elements, in six typefaces, spelling the word “NEW.” Given the pedestrian context, the work immediately established an interface between passerby and the museum—for which the word “new” became a kind of logo. Alexander’s installation echoed Venturi’s original theories in utilizing generic and commercial sign techniques to attract the viewer and provide immediate identification. But the particular word chosen did more than play on the name of the institution. It reminded the viewer of the significance of the concept of newness to the nature and function of commodity fetishism, and efficiently linked that concept to the shop window and what it conventionally displays.

On the other hand, in Mies’s glass houses of the 1930s, what was fetishized was not a new product, but nature itself. Nature was displayed behind glass as a sort of commodity, contained and available; yet, the viewer was protected from nature on the home interior. Moreover, as critic Jeff Wall has pointed out, this “interpenetration between indoors and outdoors was treated as illusory: with no trouble at all, nature could be replaced by a photomontage…The natural relationship with surroundings is a mystification to be replaced by an artificial construction, while nature is forced to become a more optical illusion with a value in no way superior to that of a painting.”

Alexander’s use of the ice house image as a starting point for the glass sculpture might be seen as a literalization of this idea that nature is “in no way superior to…a painting.” But Alexander’s understanding of the simulation of nature is more complicated. In an installation for the Cash/Newhoues Gallery in 1986, Alexander created a work entitled Lake in the Woods. On one wall of the narrow gallery was a full-colour photomural of a nature scene with vivid trees and mountains. On the facing wall was wood paneling and a row of mirrors at eye-level. In the context of the small urban art gallery, these commodified signs of Nature signified not only the pervasive desire fro the natural, but also the mannered artificiality of the translation. The poignancy of this substitution for nature is not the longing for landscape that it suggests, but the minimal sign necessary for fulfillment. Indeed, for many viewers, the attraction of the photomural landscape was heightened by viewing it in the most abstract way—reflected in the mirrors on the facing wall.

As with the glass sculptures, in Lake in the Woods absence is a key element—both physical absence and longing. What is absent directs greater attention to the context. Using unnatural materials to stand for Nature is not simply a Pop joke, but rather a poignant observation about the longing for nature—and the distance from it. Just as her other works show the falsity of nature transferred to private space, these works show falsity of home transferred to public space. And accord the two as equally cultural signs, languages for representing the function of everyday domestic life.

In Lake in the Woods Alexander’s material were replications of natural material. Although one hesitates to call them “simulations” they were at least artificial. They referred not merely to the longings of urban dwellers for “real” nature, but also served as a reminder that nature is the absent sign in urban culture, the negation against which the city defines itself. The mirrors which cut through the work and locked the viewer into constant surveillance alluded both to the absence of nature and the narcissistic aspects of fetishism.

In a similar way to Alexander’s display of glass furniture, this installation is a decoy, suggesting ways in which the consumer is already controlled, not the by object, but by the social context in which the object is situated. As channels of desire, these architectural spaces—with their props and images—serve to map out our fundamental striving for coherence and order, to fill in for absence and lack, and to encourage the satisfaction of libidinal proclivities through the consumption of material goods.

Alexander’s own attitude may seem ambivalent. It might seem uncertain whether she is fascinated or put off by the sorts of mass culture materials and spectacular displays that she uses. Particularly with the new glass furniture, one might ask if these austere furnishings are an attempt to demonstrate the sterility of contemporary society or the opposite. In that case, the absolute elimination of comfort (no downy pillows) and the reduction of the bed and chairs to their pale surrogates—mere abstractions—would signal a triumph of the repressive rule-and-compass geometry of Platonic aesthetics. However, a netter explanation seems to be the opposite. By eroticizing and exaggerating the formal qualities of these objects, Alexander is able to insert doubt, humor and false longing into a situation where even the private space of home seems ripe for commodification.