NEW YORK, NY — Studio Job MAD HOUSE at the Museum of Arts and Design (New York, March 22 -August 21, 2106) is the first American solo museum exhibition of design by collaborators Job Smeets (Belgian, b. 1970) and Nynke Tynagel (Dutch, b. 1977). They established their atelier, Studio Job, in Antwerp in 2000 and since then they have developed a distinctive body of highly expressive and opulent work, characterized by pattern, ornament, humor, and historical, socio-cultural, and personal narrative.
I have been watching their growth for a decade, at first charmed, even thrilled. But their star has dimmed for me of late. I find their work to be alluring but hyperbolic, like a rich meal that begins well and ends up making one queasy. Hearing Smeets arrogantly dismiss the designs that we mere mortals live with adds to the unease.
In a fawning, silly article “This Design Firm Fights Bad Taste from Within” in the New York Times (the newspaper’s writing about design is totally abject these days), Blake Gopnick writes:
After a few minutes with the Flemish designer Job Smeets, you start to feel sorry for the water jug at his elbow. Sleek and minimal, it seems a perfectly normal pitcher from, say, Umbra or Ikea, but Mr. Smeets prods it like something rotten. He holds it up, literally and figuratively, as a symbol of what’s wrong with design.
Let’s forget for a moment that Job (pronounced “Johb” to give it a biblical ring) does not make anything that one can afford and that their work does not serve utilitarianism. MAD informs us that Smeets and Tynagel draw inspiration from an itinerant education, traveling throughout Europe and studying important historical collections of art and decorative arts. Their commitment to craftsmanship reflects an ongoing interest in the revival of traditional applied arts practices, such as bronze casting, gilding, marquetry, stained glass, and faience, but with a contemporary approach. The atelier operates in the manner of an Old Master artist studio by engaging the skills of the most talented artisans in the production of their work.
The interdisciplinary nature of Studio Job’s oeuvre, the museum argues, makes it difficult to categorize. I do not see why. Luxury goods is a well known trade. It is further argued that their work is deliberately provocative and unconventional, giving them the reputation of enfants terribles of the art and design world. This exhibition features a variety of media and forms, including art objects, furniture, sculpture, lighting, interiors, and wall and floor coverings in an immersive installation conceived by the artists uniquely for MAD, giving the museum one of its best-installed shows in years.
In works such Crash and Robber Baron their social commentary seems to be satirizing opulence and power. Both works make strong points about pollution and money. Each harks back to the days of the robber barons and railroad kings. Train Crash is, according to Job, a personal tombstone to the death of the personal relationship between the partners. I thought this was delightful until I noted the price. Some tables in this series can cost in excess of a quarter million dollars.
The supposed irony is that those being pilloried in Job’s designs, the oligarchs, are the ones who buy this work. The studio is charging these prices to remind the buyers of their past (and present) misdeeds. How droll. It is argued that biting the hand that feeds gives the artists a free pass to play in the ponds of the wealthy. But Job is not laughing at them but with them. Once you discover this, the irony loses its bite.
Job is a maker of palace objet d’art. It is interesting to locate the palace. Although they are Dutch-trained they are not at home with the somewhat austere House of Orange. They serve the flamboyant spirit of France’s Louis XIV. One can illustrate this by comparing a ceramic from that era with their own work, in the Pyramids of Makkum series. It is a tour de force of ceramic craft and Koninklijke Tichelaar Makkum should be congratulated for their skill. In a large apartment it could look impressive, offering a touch of deliberate but smart vulgarity. But on the irony scales it registers rather low as a critique.
In terms of ceramics (not a medium they have excelled in), the series Biscuit stands out. The title is the name given to unglazed porcelain as a finished product. In the 19th century it was also called Parian Ware. The production of bisque porcelain wares rose to prominence in Europe during the mid-1700s. The French made busts and medallion-like portraits at the factories of Sévres, Mennecy-Villeroy, and Vincennes. By the end of the century, a number of sculptors were modeling figurines (usually of classical figures or ordinary characters including idealized children, street sweepers, and peasant girls) in biscuit ware. The popularity of bisque seems like a reaction to the vulgarity of glazed porcelain, but it also had its own qualities: its softness and the way light and shade played so sensually on its surface. Job exploits this beautifully.
Job found an old tool that impresses designs into clay with metal dies. It left a deep impression with greater clarity than most modern equivalents and gave a crisply etched distinction to their plates from this series. But to make a dinner service in biscuit defeated function. The body gets soiled with use and the dry surface is unpleasant. Also, the deep impressions make eating on these plates less than efficient. Thus, it is for display only, never to be sullied by utility.
The vessels, lidded jars, cake plate and the lantern in this group are handsome and given the sugary quality of biscuit porcelain they seem more like confectionery, the product of a high-end French bakery.
Finally, reading Ken Johnson’s New York Times review of the show “High-End Works Toying With Politically Loaded Signifiers” is worthwhile for two reasons. It is carefully calibrated and pointed. Also, it is notable for the ease with which Johnson moves between the vernaculars of art and design. It’s a pattern of growing inclusion. Edgier design is being written about more often on the fine arts pages. This will increase as one becomes a hybrid of the other.
Johnson points out the obvious similarity with Jeff Koons (a hero for Job):
In the ’80s, Mr. Koons participated in a trend called commodity critique, which involved objects resembling high-end commercial products to satirize the market’s transformation of artworks into desirable commodities. Clearly, Studio Job has been greatly influenced by that now tired genre. But Mr. Koons is a master of concision and subtlety compared with Studio Job.
Besides appearing to be derivative of the Belgian artist Wim Delvoye’s sculpture, works like these allude to topics of tremendous substance — the checkered history of religious institutions, for example — but in a facile, jocular mood that robs them of any very troubling meaning. A cheerful cynicism seems to be the studio’s default mode, but without the bracing effrontery you see in works by Damien Hirst, such as his diamond-studded skull “For the Love of God” (2007).
Some of Studio Job’s less ambitiously contrived works are among its most appealing. Lamps made in 2015 in the form of partly peeled bananas, the skins in bronze and the inner fruit made of electrically illuminated glass, are funny in an uncomplicated way and seductively sensuous. In “Fountain” (2011), an oversize bucket under a faucet dripping real water, the humble hardware is made of bronze polished to a golden sheen, as if it had been touched by King Midas. It has a magical, fairy-tale quality. But the overall impression given by the studio’s magpie oeuvre is of brilliant surfaces wrapped around a vacuous core.
So am I saying you should avoid this show? Absolutely not. Do not miss it. The installation by Job is superb, making the best use of MAD’s awkward galleries. The technical finesse of the work is extraordinary, the use of material is rich and conceptually loaded, and the naked smarminess in appealing to wealth is memorable if discomforting. Enjoy the exoticism and the gold-dripping excess, but don’t drink the Kool-Aid.
Garth Clark is the Chief Editor of cfile.daily.
Do you love or loathe these works of contemporary ceramic art? Let us know in the comments.