The Shock of the Now

Friedman Benda
Feb 28, 2020 9:58PM

I’m not really trying to make timeless objects – just trying to make things that keep track of what it feels like to be alive right this second. - Misha Kahn

Misha Kahn
Pig of the Sea, 2019
Friedman Benda

How does it feel out there, on the very precipice of the present? Most of us don’t even think to ask. We surround ourselves with what is familiar, and leave newness to someone else – a specialist in what’s happening now. To such emissaries of the contemporary, we reserve the name of “artist.”

Misha Kahn is almost typecast for the role. He is, as many have said, the ultimate millennial designer. Voice of his generation. Furniture design’s answer to Ryan Trecartin and Lady Gaga. A one-man macrotrend. Since graduating from RISD in 2011, his rise has been meteoric, fueled partly by his personal charisma but primarily by his prolific, associative imagination. Yet for all that he is a genuine phenomenon, it would be dead wrong to stereotype him as just the Next Big Thing, recklessly chasing novelty for its own sake. Kahn has described this newest exhibition at Friedman Benda as “earnest and classical.” I would like to take him at his word.

Misha Kahn
All The Things I Forgot, 2019
Friedman Benda
Misha Kahn
Storage for Light, Emotions, and Transient Thought, 2020
Friedman Benda
Misha Kahn
Lone Pickle in Empty Fridge, 2019
Friedman Benda
Misha Kahn
Don't Even Get Me Started, 2020
Friedman Benda

We might start with the exhibition’s title: Soft Bodies, Hard Spaces. If that sounds to you like it has something to do with modernist architecture, you’re exactly right. Rather like the kid at the end of The Emperor’s New Clothes (“but he’s wearing nothing at all!”) Kahn has a talent for seeing clearly through cultural pretensions, and for him, it is really deeply strange that we humans, squishy and irregular as we are, spend so much of our time in inflexible rectangles. “What teen girls feel about magazines,” Kahn says, “I feel about the built environment. It’s like body dysmorphia.” He makes another, related observation, too: even as we’re throwing up giant boxes to live and work in, we put figural sculpture and anthropomorphic design objects in them. Presumably we hope to mirror ourselves. But these objects look like people only on the outside. What about their innards? If we are going to take the trouble to shape the objects around us in our own image, shouldn’t we go all the way?

Allow this thought process to zoom ahead to its semi-logical conclusion, as Kahn always does, and you arrive at some of the shapes in his current work: friendly enough, yet spilling their guts. And already here, in this particular serpentine alleyway in the complex map of his thinking, we see how Kahn both is and is not deeply concerned with “the now.” On the one hand he looks around him – say, in New York City – and is bemused by what he sees. (Spaces don’t come much harder than Hudson Yards, for example, the newly completed mega-development just a few blocks north of Friedman Benda.) Kahn distrusts repetitive, neo-modernist surfaces: “I think it creates bad energy for humans to see replicas of anything, and we’re already subject to so much of this, like bricks or sidewalk blocks or cars or most things. It creates both the idea of infinite resources and personal insufficiency simultaneously.” He is trying to provide an alternative. This is what lies behind the wild formal variation in his work, his aversion to straight lines and serial units. He wants to refuse the logic of endless availability: “you can’t just take as much as you want.”

And here, we begin to see just how different Kahn’s idea of the now is from that of the modernist avant garde, in which the designer was understood as perched bravely on the prow of history, an all-conquering powerful figure, dispensing a better way of life to the rest of us. That was a grand conception, while it lasted. But it is tragically ill-suited to our present conditions. Today, unilateral authority has become deeply suspect, while novelty feels like a society-wide addiction, our special curse. Already fifty years ago, the artist Robert Smithson saw this coming. He observed that change, once it becomes sufficiently rapid, paradoxically comes to feel like paralysis: “actions swirl around one so fast they appear inactive… Direct political action becomes a matter of trying to pick poison out of boiling stew.” (Hard to believe that wasn’t written in 2020.) This leaves for the artist – what? Just stirring the pot? Smithson didn’t quite say, though the spiraling vortex of his work was an answer, of a kind. In the half-century since, the problem has only metastasized. What does it mean to be new, now? Do we still hold a special place for the creative soul – the special being who lights the world on fire? Or is it all just flotsam, so much junk twisting into an ocean gyre?

Such dizzying thoughts swirl around in my head when I think about Kahn and his work. He does react to the contemporary environment, sensitively and intuitively; and he does propose ways that we might live differently. This places him authentically into a lineage extending back through modernism to the fantastical environments of the Art Nouveau era.(He loves to present his work in unified, immersive installations – a throwback to the glory days of the Gesamtkunstwerk.) Yet he has also made a decisive break with this canonical tradition, through his radical embrace of contingency. In early February, Kahn and I were standing in his studio, surveying the glorious wreckage of his exhibition that was still rising into being. “Design could have developed this way already, it just didn’t,” he said. “But it’s not too late!” It was a funny comment, but also a profound one, which comes close to the heart of how Kahn understands the now. He is not setting himself up to critique anything or anyone else, in the approved avant garde manner. Rather, he manifests presentness as “still-not-too-lateness,” a continual search, a constant unfolding, an open-ended happening. The result is something like a dream state, as much psychological as actual. To inhabit a Misha Kahn environment completely, you would actually need to be Misha Kahn.

This extreme individualism, verging on solipsism, has helped him to evade the impasse that Smithson described half a century ago – what eventually become recognizable as the postmodern dilemma, in which gyrations of style lose their significance, becoming a “free play of signifiers” (as they used to say when I was in graduate school). But that’s not a problem if you can create your own semiotic gravity field. That is what Kahn has done… but I’m making this sound too complicated. For him, in a certain way, it’s simple. Step one: create a world parallel to our own. Step two: populate it with objects. It is a modus operandi very much of our era, noticeably similar, for example, to the overlapping genres of virtual reality, video gaming, and social media – all of which involve the construction of elaborate alternative realities. The difference is that Kahn is creating his microcosm on his own, using artisanal procedures of his own devising. He shows us what the twenty-first century would look like if it were not being served up cold, in digital space, but instead in the palpable heat of the creative moment.

Here it helps to have at least a little grasp of the making processes that Kahn employs. This is a large topic in its own right, as he is involved in so many different materials and techniques. There are certain tendencies that cross this polymorphous spectrum, though, the most important being a habit of transmutation. Almost always, in the genesis of his objects, something soft has become hard, or vice versa. Something trashy has been refined – or, again, vice versa. This methodology can already be seen in Kahn’s first series, titled Heyerdahl after the intrepid ocean voyager. It involved sewing together plastic forms and ramming them full of pigmented concrete, which he allowed to cure inside the bag mold. During the hardening process, he had to constantly but slowly manipulate the form so that it would be evenly filled, a movement he compares to “a yoga sun dance.” The result retains the puckered seams of the sewn sleeve, but is perfectly rigid. Subsequently Kahn developed a related series that he called Kon Tiki (after Thor Heyerdahl’s most famous book). These are made by filling a sewn bag with cotton, then taking a mold off that surface, then using the mold to create an aluminum casting. In this way he completed a conceptual loop, “materials being cast in a regular way to imitate materials being cast in an irregular way.” Both in Heyerdahl and Kon Tiki, we see how Kahn meets the world around him with a quicksilver ingenuity, infusing its materials with his own sensibility. If his ouevre is best understood as an alt-version of our world, an extended improvisatory riff on it, then DIY transmutation is the portal from here to there.

Misha Kahn
One Shoe, A Fold of Love Handle, a Rogue Dog Ball, 2019
Friedman Benda

Another body of work entitled Claymation reflects Kahn’s interest in biomorphic Surrealism, as well as recent animation, including the cartoon Ren & Stimpy (which aired from 1991 to 1995, when was growing up in Minnesota). This high-low cultural mixology is particularly evident in the protrusions he includes here and there in the pieces, which could be interpreted either as sinister Surrealist figuration, or comical lolling tongues, or even trailing drool. For all the pseudo-slapstick, though, the Claymation works are possessed of considerable formal intelligence. The interplay of thickly modeled passages with a slender armature of rods, and occasional unexpected moment of elegance – a polished sphere held aloft by a curling tentacle – make for complex and energetic compositions.

From their inception, the Claymation pieces had a strong virtual aspect – they seemed to call a quasi-fictional milieu into being, simply by virtue of their own existence. They were originally made using traditional techniques: hand-sketching followed by small maquettes to test the forms, then a full-sized model, then a mold, then the final casting. Recently however, Kahn has more fully realized the potential of the series by using a VR sculpting tool, which allows him to shape forms in digital space. This has so many advantages that he likens it to a “cheat code” in a video game. First of all, it’s fast, particularly because the blobby forms that Kahn is using are very natural to the program. “It’s hard to do straight lines,” he says, “but it wants fantasy. It’s like, please, make me a monster.” With this virtual tool, he can slide right past the hesitations he might otherwise have in taking a stupid risk: he can try anything, and if he doesn’t like it, just click once to undo it. Also, intriguingly, VR has no gravity. The forms can hover in midair, be moved around, cut and pasted. It’s like you’re God, making a sculpture. And as Kahn points out with sincere appreciation, you can even do it lying in bed.

The danger of using a digital tool like this, of course, is path dependency. We’ve all seen them, in profusion: the objects that look like they were generated by a piece of software, rather than a human being. And as Kahn gladly admits, “every kid in America can sculpt these same type of things.” But here’s where his interest in transmutation comes in again. Once he has the rendering how he wants it, he executes a physical model of its constituent parts, either through 3D printing or CNC-carving, and then casts those elements in wax. At this point the forms become analog, and take on new life, “sitting in the sun, getting dinged up, or tossed around in the sand pit.” Finally they are cast in metal, at massive scale, and assembled – not exactly a typical suburban kid’s undertaking. In so doing, he is mating one of the newest artistic technologies to one of the oldest. (“It makes a bridge between worlds,” he says. “Good furniture can take you on a trip.”) A comparable application of the same idea is seen in A Loose Understanding of the Space-Time Continuum, a tapestry that Kahn designed in VR and then had woven at the Stephens Tapestry Studio in Swaziland. The image is flat, obviously, but it features an illusory push-pull of abstract squiggles, which pass over and under one another in a complex snarl. The “real” matrix of the textile is entangled, visually and conceptually, with both the depicted tangle of forms and the “hyper-real” digital realm in which they were spawned.

Perhaps coincidentally, the tapestry also looks a little like a high-resolution scan of brain tissue. Stand in front of it, or any of Kahn’s creations, and you can almost hear the snap, crackle and pop of synapses firing. And this brings us back, once more, to the question of his contemporaneity. As should now be clear, this is not really a matter of style. Kahn may now have gone digital (a little), but to walk through his exhibition is to navigate numerous accumulated pasts: Surrealism and Art Nouveau, tiki bars and Tommy Bahama shirts, classical sculpture and classic sci fi. What makes Kahn such a compelling avatar of the present is his ability to mix all this together, at Google-ish speed, put it in the blender of his imagination, and lend this unruly miscellany the quality of subjectivity that all great art needs, not just to reflect its time, but to transcend it. All this was leading to him, here and now, all along. Sow the wind. Reap the whirlwind. Repeat.

- Glenn Adamson

Friedman Benda