Daniel Arsham at OHWOW Gallery: Are There People Behind These Artworks?

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Wed, Feb 1, 2012 at 8:00 AM
click to enlarge Daniel Arsham's work Hiding - COURTESY OF THE ARTIST AND OHWOW
  • Courtesy of the artist and OHWOW
  • Daniel Arsham's work Hiding

At OHWOW gallery, things are no longer as they seem: The otherwise smooth, white walls have grown a few avant-garde appendages. One is shaped like a human; another oozes; all are unquestionably strange.

These appendages are part of artist Daniel Arsham's first solo West Coast exhibition, playfully named "the fall, the ball and the wall," which opened Jan. 27.

At 31, Arsham is a rising star in the art world. He has collaborated with Merce Cunningham and the photographer and Dior Homme designer Hedi Slimane. He also works closely with critically acclaimed choreographer Jonah Bokaer, who performed an improvisational dance at the opening. And if that's not enough, Arsham's collaborations have all been in different capacities -- as an artist, architect and theater designer, specializing in cerebral and unexpected spatial distortions.

click to enlarge On the set of his collaboration with Merce Cunningham Dance Company, at the Park Avenue Armory in New York - PHOTO COURTESY OF THE ARTIST.
  • Photo courtesy of the artist.
  • On the set of his collaboration with Merce Cunningham Dance Company, at the Park Avenue Armory in New York

Arsham's projects take many forms, whether it's designing the set for a conceptual dance piece conceived by Bokaer or working with partner Alex Mustonen on projects for Snarkitecture, their wacky architecture firm. Though his conceptual territory is undefined, Arsham has a specific purpose in mind: manipulating spatial potentialities to produce what he calls "architectural interventions."

Recently, Arsham and his team showed up at OHWOW to do a few interventions on the gallery's walls. They plastered the fiberglass works into the room, and then painted them over with white paint to seamlessly integrate the works and the space.

This translates into unnerving spatial distortions. At OHWOW, the gallery's white walls are distended: A man appears to be hiding behind a wall, while the surface extends sheetlike around his body. A clock slides down folds in the middle of the wall, as if it were caught in a sheet. The lower left corner of another wall drips down in rippling white layers and gently pools on the floor.

"One of the constants that's prevalent in all of the work is taking something that people think they know, and creating a scenario in which something is different," Arsham explains. "In a sculptural work, I'm using architecture in unexpected ways, making space look like it's moving. In a painting, I'm creating spaces that shouldn't exist."

This isn't the first time Arsham has created an architectural intervention in L.A. His 2005 collaboration with Slimane involved redesigning the dressing room of the Dior Homme store on Rodeo Drive. He transformed a wall surrounding the main mirror so that it appeared to be rippling out in an avant-garde form of organic decay.

"I was thinking of every way that a material could be transformed -- it could stretch, it could be eroded, it could drip, it could crack. I'm going through the process of integrating these types of decay -- or sometimes they're simply manipulations," Arsham says of his work technique.

click to enlarge Arsham's work Floor Drip - COURTESY OF THE ARTIST AND OHWOW.
  • Courtesy of the artist and OHWOW.
  • Arsham's work Floor Drip

This yields works that are uncanny, with a certain quietness to them. His sculptures certainly have a startling effect on viewers: the torso hidden behind the wall once made a 5-year-old cry.

"I think this kid actually thought that there was a real figure in it. It also happened that the figure was child-scale -- it was about his size," Arsham says. "Many of the works here at OHWOW are quiet, because they're white, almost as if they're hiding. The reason why my works are white is because walls are white. One of the things I've found is that there are hundreds of shades of white, and they have to be repainted every time they move."

Even the pixelated clouds that he created for the set of Merce Cunningham's final performances are quiet creations that appear to be incredibly light, ethereal clusters. One of the smallest clouds is on display at OHWOW; Arsham says the largest was as big as the gallery itself. These clouds resulted from another playful manipulation of spatial dimensions. Arsham took pictures of the clouds with his phone, blew them up to reveal the individual pixels, and deconstructed the image to create a series of one-dimensional points. Then, the entire image was put back together in three dimensions, creating fantastical biomorphic groupings of cloud-colored balls.

click to enlarge Daniel Arsham's print, entitled OKAY - COURTESY OF THE ARTIST AND OHWOW.
  • Courtesy of the artist and OHWOW.
  • Daniel Arsham's print, entitled OKAY

If Arsham's sculptures are an invasion of manmade space by natural forms and processes, his paintings depict just how complicated the built environment can be. Some of Arsham's two-dimensional works (on his website, he groups his works by dimensions) on display at OHWOW include dystopian drawings of nondescript modernist cityscapes, in which buildings spell out massive renditions of ordinary words, such as "Oops" and "Okay."

He's careful to point out that he's not overtly critiquing modernist architecture in these works, but instead focusing on the (often ignored) power that the built environment has. "The words were chosen because of their banality. Their overuse makes them almost meaningless, and they've been elevated to this architectural proportion -- architecture being almost the most important thing that people can make," he adds. And that's the trick of Arsham's art -- while he makes statements that resonate on an intellectual level, he delivers them in playful ways.

Though inspirational influences abound -- Ashram cites the ideas of Superstudio, a 1960s Italian conceptual architecture studio, as well as the films of David Lynch and David Cronenberg -- he's loath to identify himself with any kind of architectural or artistic tradition.

click to enlarge Arsham's OOPS print - COURTESY OF THE ARTIST AND OHWOW
  • Courtesy of the artist and OHWOW
  • Arsham's OOPS print

Instead, he favors a biographical explanation for his aesthetic of interventions. "When I was a child, there was a terrible hurricane in Florida that dismembered the house that I was living in. It did the opposite of what I did with my environment -- it was violent and horrible," he recalls.

"I try to be less specific about what I'm proposing. People have often asked me about whether I've watched a lot of horror films. The idea comes out of this question of the uncanny. It comes from defamiliarizing the familiar. Anytime you upset the norm, you get into strange territory."

Daniel Arsham's "the ball, the fall and the wall" is on display at OHWOW through Feb. 16.

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