New York

Siah Armajani

Max Protetch

In recent works Siah Armajani continues to tread a unique path of synthesis, combining sculpture, architecture, product and furniture design, and American culture and language into a complex, articulate, and didactic formal system. (In fact, if his work were not as interesting and multiform as it is, this didacticism could seem oppressive.) Armajani’s pursuit involves the search for a uniquely American idiom that communicates the values and moral lessons of such intellectual heroes as Thomas Jefferson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and John Dewey. His explorations of American history and ideology inform his work from one side, while from another enter his own perceptions, those of an outsider and adopted citizen. The five constructions that made up this show are in the scale of interior furnishings; Armajani focuses his inquiries on objects that occupy and define space rather than on more expansive constructions that contain it. All five pieces are magnificently assembled, highly decorative and inquisitive. Although Armajani looks to sources and indigenous construction systems that he has dealt with before, these pieces are less obviously eclectic than the earlier work; and by working with furniture motifs, Armajani is grappling with a decorative dimension which was previously less urgent.

This exhibition clearly signifies new directions and challenges for Armajani. Whereas many artists work reluctantly in the public domain, Armajani has often demonstrated his curiosity about the nature and definition of public life and mythologies. He has found open spaces and civic content sympathetic to his investigations in cultural democracy. By bringing his dialogue into domestic and conventionally private circumstances, he can try to determine the congruence between public gesture and private lives. Armajani is also exploring a diminished tangible context; by moving to more discrete forms which sit in space rather than enclose it, he has entered and anticipated an indeterminate geography.

One of the most complex pieces is Hall Mirror with Table in Back, 1983–84. A red-framed rectangular mirror is placed over a triangular table; both are framed by a large, vertical rectangle stenciled with two quotations from Emerson concerning the search for congruence in the useful and fine arts. The verbal messages are complicated by the fact that they are superimposed, suggesting that the rift is profound and deeply internalized. In Picture Window, 1979–83, a stepped cascade of blue and green glass panels is paired with a larger, decorative glass panel with an inscription of a house (Thoreau’s) with picket fence. The window obstructs a view while creating a vision of an idealized situation which combines designed elements with an enlarged mythology. The window frames what we may desire to see.

Armajani’s furniture is visually delightful and elegantly realized. Yet in these pieces, the artist’s unwavering precision conveys an uncertainty. The search for forms that are neither sculpture nor architecture—nor just furniture—but all of these, creates a layered complexity that is not yet fully resolved. Armajani has always looked to ideology, structure, and history to anticipate a unison of purpose and art; the fusion in these five pieces is awkward, but infinitely promising. This is a dictionary that discloses some information about a possible common language, but not enough about meaning and etymology. Armajani’s transmutation of public messages in discrete objects is still too obscure.

Patricia C. Phillips