Los Angeles

Justin Beal


Justin Beal’s second solo exhibition continues his project of revealing the repressed of modernist architecture and design. At first encounter, his wall-mounted sculptures seem ascetic, cold. Slabs of slick-surfaced materials—aluminum, Plexiglas, and mirror—are bound together by plastic stretch wrap, often coated with glossy black and white enamel. In some pieces, the wrap delineates the contours of a hidden, protruding hexahedron; in others, it captures a tangle of transparent tubing, whose length grazes the floor. The work appears to be a simple rehashing of Minimalist aesthetics with up-to-date materials, redolent of commercial displays of high fashion and design. Yet prolonged observation reveals purposeful details that betray the artist’s handicraft. Drips and drops of enamel and short lengths of transparent tape interrupt the mirrored surfaces, which emphasize imperfections by doubling them in reflection. While these “flaws” index the artist’s body, the mirrors reflect fragments of the viewer at every turn—notably legs, hips, and thighs.

Props placed on two low, glass-topped tables make the corporeal suggestions unmissable. Scattered across the first table, in the show’s eponymous Hot Hot House (all works 2010), are seven cucumbers—five fresh (from hothouse growers) and two coated in nickel-plated plastic—strongly recalling Fluxus artist Robert Watts’s early-1960s chrome-plated sculptures of food items such as eggs, chocolates, cabbage heads, and sticks of butter. Watts’s shiny, inedible foodstuffs were a joke on the consumer culture of their time—an era that witnessed marketers devising ever-new ways to make goods more desirable. But Beal’s deployment of aestheticized food objects (his last solo show here included forms in the familiar bulbous shape of POM bottles) extends the critique to a contemporary design world that would demand that a vegetable turn platinum to match the look of its environment. In other words, this work performs a critique-by-imitation of a design culture whose aesthetic demands, translated into an entire, marketable lifestyle, become irreconcilable with the basic goals of sustaining and nurturing human life.

The other table piece, Kracklite, features a projector that loops a silent clip from Peter Greenaway’s 1987 film, The Belly of an Architect. In the scene, architect Stourley Kracklite visualizes the length of his diseased intestine with a span of medical tubing (the same kind that appears in Beal’s wall sculptures). Kracklite’s solemn contemplation of his deteriorating viscera is played against the wry, phallic eroticism of Hot Hot House and lends an air of fetishistic bondage to the wall-mounted works. Exuberant sexuality and death: These two extremes of bodily expression, called forth in Beal’s work, subvert high modernist functionalism and point instead to postmodernist neo-functionalism, which embraces expression, emotion, and sensuality in the service of an alternative, lower realm of corporeal desire. Hot Hot House, the sculpture and the exhibition as a whole, are in this way an homage to Andrea Branzi’s 1984 book, The Hot House: Italian New Wave Design, a celebration of postmodern “heretical experiments” in applied arts and design.

With these minute references assembled, Beal’s formal-conceptual project begins to make sense. Traces of the artist’s touch, mirror reflections of the viewer’s body, organic materials: Those details are oriented toward a critique—in both aesthetic and ethical terms—of the purist modernism that still dominates architecture and design. Like Josiah McElheny or Tom Burr, Beal adopts Minimalist forms as a subversive camouflage. In this exhibition, his strategy also comes across as a restaging of post-Minimalism’s departure from the cool fabrication of perfect geometries toward objects that exhibit the process of their making. Beal’s tubing recalls Eva Hesse’s draped wires and ropes, and his swaths of wrapping resemble certain of Piero Manzoni’s “Achromes.” Thus the work addresses not only the body of the design consumer, but also that of the design “artisan,” to whom Branzi’s neo-functionalist rhetoric extended. According to Branzi’s vision of “The New Handicrafts,” the ubiquity of industrial materials would not necessarily render the designer’s hand invisible. His role would simply have to expand: “Being an artisan does not mean not using all the machines in the process of manufacturing; on the contrary it means using all the machines in the workshop in rotation, maintaining direct control of all phases of production.” Likewise, when Beal proposes a functionalism addressed to bodily desire, he is concerned above all with the desires of the artist.

Natilee Harren