My first encounter with the ceramics of the Haas brothers, Nickolai (Niki) and Simon, was not a happy one. I saw their pots at the 2013 Art Basel Miami and listed them as being among the worst examples of that year’s fine-art-endorsed-ceramic-mediocrity. But then I reencountered the twins just across the street at Design Miami. This time it was their furniture and sculpture, strange mythic beasts, covered in fur with reptilian bronze feet and, if one parts the fur, strategically placed brass balls.
Above image: A portrait of the Haas Brothers.
The twins vision exists in a surreal organic and zoomorphic landscape that makes acid redundant, occupied by creatures of various kinds disguised as pots, sofas, tables and chairs. They are cute enough to approach but somehow a tad dangerous when one gets too close. A lizard foot on a fur chair brings reptile and mammal uneasily together. Some chairs and sofas ask that you mount and ride them rather than just sit and their scale is daunting.
The zoomorphic charm and decadence of these chairs and sofas never left me, and when they opened their first US solo exhibition at R and Company (New York) it was the perfect invitation to examine their work more closely and, in particular, to revisit their ceramics.
The large pots now have a handsome presence. Unlike their earlier work, which was best seen in clusters, they can stand-alone. The form has become stronger and the brothers’ grasp of clay more assured. The twins developed their own technique of accretion with their ceramic collaborator to mimic coral-like surfaces, and recently began using a proprietary Changeum glaze made from a rare earth material with very sharp absorption peaks.
“When light passes through it, or gets reflected off it, it comes back to you with a lot of missing information,” Simon said of the vases, which debuted this spring at the Collective design fair. “It’s really just pointing out, ‘hey, this isn’t what you thought it was.’”
The Dong series in particular is exciting, drooping, slouching sex-beasts from coral reefs that seem almost alive and might proposition you if you got too close. The message they project is contradictory. The unctuous, glossy, gold glaze is seductive and the phallic necks they coat invite touch and intimacy. The lower pink sections of the pots are subtly sexual, the color draws us in but resists fondling because of fragile, dry and sharply textured surfaces that make touch a little too risky.
The Dong pots belong to the Accretion Pot family that the Haas brothers and their ceramic collaborator have developed. The technique is painstakingly slow and enables them to build up 3-D textures that can be sharp and spikey like a sea anemone or a cactus as well as flat liquid fronds that gently overlap each other. When diving even neophyte like myself knows instinctively not to touch underwater plants or creatures with this coloration. It’s camouflage for toxicity.
The pots link to all the beasts in the Hass collection in that they feel curiously alive. This gives their work its creepy-chic. More pets than objects, but decidedly not house-broken. One feels they might slowly sidle up to you or that an erect neck might suddenly go flaccid or vice versa. It’s the organic informality form that gives it this near-life quality. One sees this when one mixes, as below the vessels with bronze vases, stone lamps on the Little Beasts.
I quickly realized that I had made some very wrong assumptions about the twins. I still am not enamored of the 2013 ceramics but this year’s ceramics have grown. I also discovered that they were Texans living in Los Angles not Germans living in Berlin. The latter rash assumption was made because their art seemed to be European in its sexual freedom and louche decadence. I also realized that they were not indifferent to craft itself but to its boundaries.
In fact by the age of 14 their brother, the actor Lukas Haas, claims that they had the skills of master stonemasons after years of helping their father making all kinds of carved accessories for the homes of Austin’s elite from palace grottoes to fireplaces.
In an excellent, must-read article, “Rebel Yell: A Summer of Sex, Drugs, and Design with the Haas Brothers”, Michael Slenske in Modern Painters (November 16, 2014) explains that before moving to an 8,700-square-foot space in the historic West Adams district this past August:
“The Haas brothers, as they are known professionally, had spent five years navigating this funky layout with a growing team of assistants to create a totally unique visual language via some of the most technically innovative, painstakingly crafted, and artistically challenging pieces of furniture in recent memory. The studios thrum with a steady beat of hammer-pounding, blowtorching, and machine-sewing as the team makes everything from the brothers’ wildly popular accretion vases (crafted from brushing layer upon layer of slip over a vessel until it appears to grow clay tentacles) and organically shaped, hand-cut, hammered-and-polished brass “Hex Tile” tables to logic-based, hand-tooled glass-flower lighting fixtures. This afternoon a sculpting assistant puts the finishing touches on a test version for a vermiculated-leather sofa (dubbed the “California Raisin”) that takes 4,000 man-hours of sewing to replicate the texture of a scrotum.”
To read their almost-to-good-to-be-true rise to fame (its basically happened in four years) you will have to go to part two and see the related media we collected on the duo. We have deliberately separated the two because their rapid rise up the boldface celebrity ladder is a bit difficult for struggling creatives to take. The following quote provides a perfect bridge to reengage with these telegenic, obsessively workaholic, outspoken, sexually provocative twins. It connects with the prime reason for the twins making art and design, cuts the glamor overdose, and comes from Simon:
“If we have one agenda we’re pushing, it is humanism. It’s about the human experience and humans having fun. I don’t like anybody telling me how to think, which is why I don’t like religion. I’m more into experience. We’re not trying to tell you anything is right or wrong. We’re trying to show people you can feel different.”
I have left their biography to the last because it might prejudice your feelings. For struggling artists it might be too much success to swallow. Four years ago no one had heard of the twins. They were not making art or design. Niki had been working as a vegan cook but was then broke. Simon did property managing gigs and construction work. Then their brother Lukas (I will introduce him later) got them a commission in 2010 to make pedestals for an actor (reputedly Leonardo DeCaprio which make sense as he and Lukas are buddies). Tobey Maguire saw the aluminum cubes they had contracted and was so he invited them to help with his search for a architect for his new house and to design the furniture for his Sony office.
They had never made furniture before but living the “elle décor” world of their father gave them an understanding of the field of interiors. They lost money for the first two years then in 2012 the rocket took off. Donatella Versace fell in love with their vision and commissioned them to make a line of furniture for her, which debuted on Salon de Mobile, stealing the show. The line was an instant hit and prices for the bondage bench rose for $125,000 to $450,000.
They designed costume props for Lady Gaga, were on both Art Basel and Design Miami, did figurative runaway sculptures in condom latex for designer Greg Chait’s cult fashion label, The Elder Statesmen, were invited on tours by friend Vincent Gallo, worked for haute rug manufacturer. ABC Italia. And this list goes on.
Plus, I might add, last year they celebrated their 30th birthday.
The problem with rockets is that they run out of fuel and the return to earth is nasty. Will this be their fate after the current super-charged high-octane media-fuel runs out? I very much doubt it in part because of who the twins are (tough, hugely talented, determined, workaholic) and because of lessons in artificial world of celebrity.
You may know older brother Lukas for his iconic role in 1984 as the young Amish boy starring alongside Harrison Ford in the thriller The Witness. Actually his career began two years earlier when he was five and he then went on to appear in nearly 50 films (with several pending), working for Peter Wier, Tim Burton, John Casavetes, Christopher Nolan, Gus Van Sant and others.
From birth the twins observed his life in the spotlight, not just on film but also on TV (such as an Emmy Nomination for playing Ryan White) and on stage with Steve Martin and Robin Williams in Becket.
The twins clearly enjoy the attention, they are voluble, opinionated and are pulpit hogs, but they know the vagaries of fame and boldface mafia all to well to be impressed. More evident is their boyish pleasure at having and relishing a career they could not have imagined six years ago. Who ho knows where their career will travel. I do not see it staying in one place. They have strong interest in music and seeing that everything they do, including utilitarian products, is done under the rubric of conceptual art. The options are endless. It is going to be quite the ride.
Garth Clark is Chief Editor of CFile.
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