What is art? While this may seem like a simple question, thinkers and artists have been positing and arguing about different definitions for decades. One such answer that has been put forward is that what distinguishes a work of art from other objects is its inherent non-functionality. Art is meant to be seen, considered, enjoyed, but not used. Keenly aware of this and other claims about art, many modern and contemporary artists have set out to do what they do best: complicate the question and question its answers. With its current exhibition, “Dis-Functional,” Allan Stone Projects brings together a selection of works by lauded artists who blur the boundary between art and utilitarian objects, throwing notions about what a work of art is delightfully out of whack.
Take William Umbreit’s Clam Rake (1974) and Pitchfork (c. 1977), for example. The rake looms absurdly large in a corner, its handle curving gracefully upwards, almost reaching the ceiling, its sinuous line interrupted by a bulge whose shape is suggestive of the clams this tool cannot be used to uncover. While the pitchfork’s smaller scale makes it seem more manageable, one of its three slender tines bends downward to encircle the handle in a serpentine coil. If Umbreit manipulates functional objects to turn them into works of art, Arman and Dan Basen encase them, cutting them off from use. In an untitled wall piece, Arman suspends hundreds of bits of hardware in resin to create an abstract composition, while Basen encloses a small heap of them inside a metallic box, with windows cut into its front for our viewing pleasure. Screws, gears, and other such parts have never looked so lovely.
There is a healthy dose of trompe l’oeil trickery here too, with Richard Haden’s Tar (mid-1980s) and Derrick Guild’s Untitled (1997). Haden presents what appears to be a rusted-shut can of tar, but is, in fact, a replica cleverly crafted out of painted wood. Guild’s stretched and primed canvas seems ready for painting, until closer inspection reveals it to be a convincing ceramic facsimile. Robert Arneson, on the other hand, isn’t fooling anybody. This famously witty ceramist is represented by A Teapot? (1969), a sculpture, as its title indicates, of a teapot, albeit a questionable one. With its unwieldy body and flaccid spout, it stands, like all of the works on view, somewhere between the realms of art and functionality.