Artist Chris Schanck has taken a trip from Pittsburgh to Dallas to Detroit, with a bit of Bangladesh added to it – and has just arrived at Columbus Circle for his first solo museum exhibition. His custom-made, labor-intensive furnishings and furnishings – from chairs and tables to mirrors and lamps are on display at Museum of Arts and Design (MAD) starting today (Saturday 12 February 2022).
W42ST caught up with the artist in the third floor gallery earlier this week for a tour Chris Schanck: off-world. The exhibition features what MAD calls its “striking, otherworldly furniture forms” comprised of “elaborately sculpted objects, colorfully hued and lustrous.”
Schanck explained the origins – and Bangladeshi connections – of many of his works: “I live in a part of Detroit that’s about 90% Bangladeshi – the city recognized it and called it Banglatown. If you take the neighborhood as context, there are clapboard single-family homes that were built in the 1920s to last a single generation for people moving in to work at the nearby Ford automobile plant. So here we are in 2022, and the same houses are still standing that weren’t meant to last more than 15 or 20 years and that means they’re in a constant state of entropy and repair. They repair their fences, their house and their gardens with what is available by necessity and inventiveness. So you can find an entire fence in a driveway and each post comes from a bed and a shovel and then something else.
Schanck stands in front of a work titled Braked vanity — a dialogue with a late 19th-century Hammered dressing table — that was commissioned by the Dallas Museum of Art and completed during the pandemic. “This was made from found materials, ready to use on the field next door and everything is locked and tied together, which at first appears chaotic or unintended, but on later inspections it is very, very specific,” Schanck said of how the sparkling silver table and chair came to be. “We made it as minimal as possible around a metal frame so that it was stable. After that, all these materials are collected from the neighborhood. As this is a chain link fence – then we add material so that it grows bigger and darker like when you see a tree growing in a fence they come together.
As he guided us around the pieces – wrapped in his signature manufacturing process called Alufoil – he pointed to bits of lath and plaster, a tarp, a bike lock – “there’s a spring from a bed. You don’t want to be too obvious, but if you look at a few things that stand out, they’re recognizable,” he said.
The found objects are all from his walk to work in an old factory. “Fortunately, the walk from my house to my studio is 1.5 km, which I can do quite quickly. So I can collect on the way to the studio. There is a very special alley in front of my house which is rich in materials. The alleys stopped working for cars and became dumps. Then there are huge lots where you saw people start collecting and categorizing discarded material, but then the business was abandoned. You can jump the fence and there are stacks of electronics, auto parts, office stuff, just perfectly organized. It’s weird,” Schanck said.
Many exhibits are on loan from private collections and are practically used as household items – museum pieces may vary slightly. “It’s on the spectrum. So the chandelier you hang over your dining table works great. You don’t have to interact with it. This piece for the Dallas museum, we explicitly had a conversation that it was never going to be used. So they gave me a lot of freedom and stability to do a lot of things that I couldn’t normally do. The mirrors work as a reflective surface, so no damage really has to happen to them, and they’re easy to use,” Schanck said.
Several of the exhibits were completed during the pandemic. We asked how that experience had been for him — “You know, despite the tragedy of COVID, for me and most artists I talk to, it was a breeze because you were just in the studio. I was able to spend a lot of time drawing. I love to draw. Drawing is probably the basis of my practice. So I was able to spend hours and hours drawing. That’s how I start to come up with ideas. So it was very luxurious,” he said, explaining how his table and chair from the Dallas museum were delivered. “We did the opening at the height of COVID. I went here. There was no opening. I was only allowed to invite seven of my friends. So we had a very small secret opening at the museum, and then we went to the bar of the hotel where I was staying, which was empty. I think there were three of us.
The pandemic inspired one of the biggest pieces in the exhibition — Death Bench — a circular sofa surmounted by figures which are Schanck’s version of Death and the Maiden with a third illuminated divine figure in the center. The artist explained how he sketched out the idea. “It was done especially for the show at a time when I was talking to my grandparents who had gone through a period when there was smallpox in the country. It was a real danger to people. Generations lived this stuff and they were saying it’s something your generation is going to be going through now,” he said. “But I went back to the Renaissance because at its height it wiped out half the population of Great Britain. It’s a kind of “memento mori” imagery to remind you that you’re going to die, but not to bring you down but to remember your life and enjoy it. While the science was wildly incorrect, I think they nailed the symbolism of what was happening. I obviously find that it is still quite relevant at the time where we are.
“As much as I hate to say it was inspired by that period, but why not? You know, it happened and it still happens and it’s real. Even if you go back to when the plague was ending, there wasn’t much literature on the plague. It was almost like we were moving on. Let’s forget. Let’s go back. You know, people haven’t changed in 2000 years, it’s the same,” Schanck said.
We asked about the bright colors in his art. Did it also have a Bangladeshi influence? “If you walk around the neighborhood, people are incredibly expressive when it comes to fashion. They are by no means conservative. You can find other conservative cultural things, but fashion is not one of them. Two of my neighborhood assistants are Bangladeshi and they have this funny, I would say uplifting, habit that if they’re working on a particular color piece, they’ll specifically start wearing clothes of that color to connect with it. It’s that thing. It’s not discussed, but it’s an uplifting thing,” he said.
The exhibition, which has been curated by Cranbrook Art Museum director Andrew Blauvelt, will be on view until January 8, 2023. Coinciding with the show, MAD is running a series of year-long public programs in which artists and designers explore the creative potential of industrially produced objects discarded daily in the streets of New York. Collaborators Thomas Barger, Shari Mendelson and Studio Nito will lead attendees through hands-on workshops to transform waste into raw materials for art and design. This summer, MAD will engage its visitors to create a floating sculpture of discarded plastic bags called Museo Aero Solar, an open source project initiated by Tomas Saraceno.
Our last question was about the name of the exhibition — Off World. Schanck replied, “One description I made up of it was being in a totally unfamiliar context. Facing the unknown. I think we could all relate to this idea over the past two years.