Siah Armajani

Contemporary Arts Center, Cincinnati

Newstand [sic], even more than Siah Armajani’s other works, moves beyond the traditional limits of sculpture and carves out a place for itself somewhere between architecture and stage design. It looks like a stage set or a small, innocuous building that is in use—not merely usable, like his recent “Meeting Garden” and “Reading Garden” in Roanoke, Virginia, Omaha, Nebraska and Artpark in New York. Museum-shop wares are sold from the Newstand’s racks, and periodicals are strewn across its tables to entice visitors to sit down on the benches and read. “Use” could have blurred the distinction between architecture and sculpture but instead it was clarified; the incongruities were noticeable, disconcerting, and obviously intentional. The roofless, doorless, two-walled “rooms” within rooms, with their high, rigid. Shaker-like benches, made the visitor feel self-conscious and intensively aware of the artist’s curiously constructed environment. The “customer” at the Newstand was left standing in front of a strange polygon-shaped sales booth that looked normal enough from a distance. At the counter it became clear that the larger-than-lifesize booth was in effect a three-dimensional drawing. Its translucent window-wall was illuminated by natural light—from a window located in the gallery wall right behind it.

Illusion and reality constantly collide in Armajani’s work. In this piece, close-up, the surrounding tables, with their rough surfaces and big, constructivist bolts, don’t look anything like traditional carpentry and the benches are boxed in.

The “customer” at the Newstand suddenly feels on stage, but no one is watching and there is no script. The environment stands there in all its strangeness, compelling the viewer to come to terms with it, in the same way as Robert Irwin’s work does. (Armajani is a fan of Irwin’s work.) But the kind of visual analysis that serves the spectator well in Irwin’s art is only partially successful in elucidating Armajani’s work. Something more—a text—is needed, because the ideas behind the work are not ideas that can be communicated purely in visual terms.

Like other artists and writers today, Armajani has rejected the modernist notion that art should only be about art. His work is representational, and his buildings serve as symbols of ideas. He depicts simple frame sheds, not great works of architecture so that his work can be understood by a broad audience.

In Armajani’s earlier works, he provided verbal clues through his titles. Thomas Jefferson’s House, West Wing, Bridge for Robert Venturi, Red School House for Thomas Paine and El Lissitzky’s Neighborhood Center House revealed his eclectic use of sources and, by association, the variety of values embodied in the work. In the last year, he has begun to add longer, more explicit texts by stenciling quotations from his mentors on the walls. The “Meeting Garden” at Artpark has one from Dewey. Newstand is inscribed with one from Emerson:

If history were truly told,
If life were nobly spent,
It would be no longer easy
Or possible to distinguish
The useful arts from the fine arts.

Jayne Merkel