Joep van Lieshout

Galerie Roger Pailhas

In a period when museum staffers can scrub a bathtub signed by Joseph Beuys, while Donald Judd markets a line of furniture, it is only natural for us to expect comment from younger artists. Joep van Lieshout has abandoned his neo-Minimalist investigations to produce a series of furniture pieces: tables, chairs, and other standardized furnishings. This is not to suggest that sculpture has fallen by the wayside in deference to the utilitarian object. On the contrary, the reintroduction of utility into the most formal Minimalism—the act of reinvesting sculpture with a functional value (which Modernist ideology from Kant to Sol LeWitt has resisted, in spite of Kasimir Malevich’s tea set, Marcel Breuer’s furniture designs, and Beuys’ ecological use of trees) is, for this artist, a highly pointed gesture. In a sense, the overvalorization of the criticism of art’s trade value has throughout this century eclipsed the very question of utility value within art.

The serial principal of modular structure in Minimal art is joined in van Lieshout’s work with a system of standardized furniture kits (of the sort that IKEA markets). The simplicity of geometric form in his tables, chairs, bookshelves, and desks addresses simple considerations of functional standardization, proposing plastic decisions that are logical, practical, and ergonomical. Thus the tables measure 25, 50, 75, 150, 225, or 300 centimeters in length, by a fixed height of 75 centimeters.

The exhibition/showroom presents a stunning model of a blue desk, but a catalogue of the ’90-91 collection, available in the gallery (and without question more interesting than the model installation), presents the full line of products. One becomes aware of the range of van Lieshout’s work—from furnishings to bathroom fixtures and integrated kitchens. A list of plumbing equipment even finds its way into the work, again reinforcing the practical dimension of the piece, but above all allowing the artist to play on the kitsch quality and faux chic status associated with a gilt faucet.

More than simply a mockery of Minimal formalism, more than a post-Modern persiflage, these works reinvent antiart in 1991; this time, though, antiart is directed against the avant-garde, whose categorical imperatives it counters. By reintroducing the utility value in such a direct and spectacular way (and in pointed opposition to the Modernist dogma regarding art’s dematerialization), van Lieshout foregrounds the extent to which this rhetoric facilitated the principal of ostentatious expenditure (potlatch and speculation). Furthermore, by offering us a palette of basic colors for the customer to choose from (red, yellow, blue, green), the monochrome, with its vanguard pretenses, is relegated to the realm of design. The result is a kind of audacious antireadymade that challenges us today as Duchamp’s urinal once did.

Olivier Zahm

Translated from the French by Diana C. Stoll.