New York

Osami Tanaka

Bess Cutler Gallery

Osami Tanaka has filled several rooms with elegant but dysfunctional furniture, a total of ten beds and one uncomfortable-looking couch arranged so as to thwart any possibility of a domestic atmosphere. Their shapes are recognizable, yet hardly seductive due to their uninviting materials and economy of form. Until now, Tanaka has employed materials as diverse as steel and paraffin, in abstract, minimalist sculptures that were almost exclusively about formal relationships. This is the artist’s first foray into the quasi representational, and his continuing Minimalist orientation remains unmistakable.

In the new furniture sculptures, Tanaka employs largely the same materials as in his previous work, most notably steel, paraffin, lead, and glass. His penchant for bringing together and formally reconciling diverse materials is apparent here, especially in a small bed (all works untitled, 1990) with a rusted steel frame and a “mattress” of molded paraffin. There are several beds based on an Eastern design, which are small and low to the ground. One consists of a bare steel frame, another is a frame supporting a mirror, and a third is a sparse bunk frame with a connecting ladder, each level sheeted with frosted glass. Every piece constitutes a union of delicacy and solidity, fragility and permanence—formal qualities that resonate oddly in such a seemingly mundane context. Several recognizably Western beds, complete with headboards and thick mattresses, are made entirely of steel in either rusted or polished form. Tanaka has cleverly used soldering marks to create the look of real mattresses, and some are even lumpy. Yet despite their familiar look, these sculptures—especially the lead sofa with razor-sharp edges—are quite uncanny.

Tanaka’s project is a paradox in which everyday, even intimate objects become the focus of an objective study of essential form. This reductive search for essence succeeds in that he is able to recreate these objects stripped of their function, pared down to their essential components. At the same time, however, these works cannot escape associations cued by their references to functional objects; in fact, they attract interpretive possibilities like magnets. In this respect they transgress the protocols of Minimalism to tap into a varied art-historical tradition in which everyday, albeit dysfunctional, objects serve some social, political, or art-historical agenda, a tradition that ranges from Dada to recent commodity sculpture. Tanaka’s uncomfortable furniture, for better or for worse, is automatically drafted into the company of Man Ray’s spiked flatiron and Haim Steinbach’s lava lamps. While far from readymades, his beds and sofa are nevertheless constructed from mass-produced, industrial materials and reference common objects that invite extraformal associations on their own. These sculptures work as pure form only insofar as the viewer might be willing to suspend his or her knowledge and associational activity, but they do not ultimately maintain formalist autonomy. In this sense the low bed covered with mirrors serves as a metaphor for this show; as a register of multiple and refractory meanings, it is an invitation for each viewer to gaze in and see something different.

Jenifer P. Borum