New York

Kate Ericson and Mel Ziegler

Michael Klein, Inc.

Naming is never innocent, and capitalist culture has habitually enhanced the appeal of mundane items by slapping clever labels on them. Kate Ericson and Mel Ziegler examine such nomenclatures, highlighting the often outlandish, sometimes absurd fantasies they provoke. Buy into the romance and temporarily deny the banality of a life flattened into two dimensions by the steamroller of mass production. In Keep an Eye on Your Pickles, 1993, pickle jars carry the names of prefabricated houses marketed by Sears. “Princeton” evokes neo-Gothic granite solidity set amid azaleas and sloping lawns, “Ashland” the stately colonnade of a Southern plantation. Both disguise the fact that all 300 styles are designed for constricted suburban lots and constructed of budget-conscious mass-market materials.

For Eminent Domain, 1992, Ericson and Ziegler worked with the residents of a Chicago housing project to design a color chart with names that evoke the reality of public housing, from “HUD Cream” to “Homeless” (sky blue), “FHA Gingerbread” to “Scattered-Site Coral.” In selecting the colors, the residents also took control over an aspect of their domestic environment hitherto in the hands of the government: the color of their own walls. (One could argue, however, that a new paint job is just the sort of window dressing government agencies indulge in instead of addressing more fundamental grievances like cramped living spaces, unsafe public areas, and structural deterioration.)

Ericson and Ziegler’s most compelling works attempt to intervene in real-life contexts. The paint chart will be marketed nationwide through True Value Hardware stores; a similar project for “Project Unité” in Firminy, France, involved redesigning a household cleaner that would then be distributed through local supermarkets. These autonomous sculptures and prototypes of unrealized interventions, however, seem inert in the gallery, detached from the constituencies whose lives they reference and to whom they would most powerfully communicate. Moreover, as deracinated site-specific works, the projects shown here require detailed textual explanation.

Ericson and Ziegler operate primarily through the vehicle of international art exhibitions when creating their interventions. Eminent Domain was conceived for “Sculpture in Action: New Public Art in Chicago,” a public art project organized by curator Mary Jane Jacob; last year the artists created dishes used in restaurants during “Sonsbeek 93,” a large-scale public art project in Arnhem. But by presenting the work to an art audience, Ericson and Ziegler risk alienating it from the real issues it purportedly engages.

Several of Ericson and Ziegler’s projects remain unrealized precisely because they encountered resistance from their real-life collaborators. For instance, they have apparently failed to convince manufacturers to produce and distribute their products. Such stories need to be told, for they inevitably determine the course of each project. Moreover, specific accounts—of both resistance and cooperation—would bring into focus the current debate about who benefits and who learns from such interventions, and who, finally, is exploited by them.

Lois Nesbitt