Installation view of "Parlour," courtesy of ROKEBY
Modernist design, now often referred to as mid-century modern, has an aesthetic history that is still alive in the memories of the baby boom generation. The modernist aesthetic is everywhere, although it is now generally severed from the ideological foundation from which it arose. How, then, to respond to the defining cultural force of the 20th century at a time where its legacy is both everywhere and slipping out of reach?
Michael Samuels’s take on modernism beguiles in part because form and content interlock, much like the finely hewn slices of Ercol furniture do in his elegant works, now on view in his fourth exhibition at Rokeby, titled “Parlour.” Slender strips of material from a single table top made by the British furniture manufacturer form geometric compositions in two wooden screens situated near the entrance to the gallery. Other works combine furniture fragments with soft grey concrete and Scandinavian glass vases in a contemporary take on bricolage.
Samuels reconfigures iconic furniture from the era into new forms, which are themselves unmistakably modernist in their aesthetic. His works constitute gentle challenges to one of modernism’s fundamental precepts: functionalism. The more two dimensional pieces on view exhibit reference the clean, precise geometry associated with de Stijl while composite, hanging works incorporate the gentle curves of Ben Nicholson. The concrete and vases are stripped of their functionality in this context, serving only to contribute to Samuels’s carefully balanced compositions.
In “Parlour,” a seating area furnished with period furniture transplanted from the artist’s studio provides a place to reflect on the work whilst leafing through a collection of carefully chosen art and design books on the likes of Richard Hamilton and Victor Pasmore. The creation of a space in which the work can be sat-with, as opposed to looked-at, is integral to the show, itself somewhat of a throw-back to salon culture. Samuel’s work and the environment created for it at Rokeby function in this socially oriented way, combining to allow viewers the chance to inhabit modernism, to sit with it for a while, and from that point to play with its coordinates.