John Lautner believed that "architecture should be really odd." To this end the midcentury American architect dotted Southern California with a concrete, glass and copper volcano for Bob Hope's second home, a dwelling that looks like a UFO perched on a lush hillside, and plenty of other equally iconoclastic and dramatic residential gestures.
Visitors to "Model Studies" at the Graham Foundation won't find a clear view of any of these cinematic structures, but they will find an exhibition that takes a series of Lautner's architectural models as a starting point. Visitors will also find plenty of provocative and elegant oddness, though it may not have been quite the kind of oddness that Lautner had in mind.
The exhibition is the brainchild of the German artist Thomas Demand, and walking through it feels a little bit like meandering through his mind. It strings together an utterly unexpected series of thoughts beginning with Demand's transformative photographs of Lautner's models and including pictures of student work from VKhUTEMAS, the legendary Constructivist school run in Moscow in the 1920s; fantastical black-and-white prints by the relatively unknown photographer Francis Bruguiere; machinic drawings of soldiers sketched by master French artist Fernand Leger on the battlefields of World War I; and a set of smart, subtle display vitrines commissioned from contemporary German artist Thomas Scheibitz. "Model Studies" is also one of the most meticulously installed and selected exhibitions I have seen in a very long time.
Over the past 21/2 decades, Demand has become well-known for his large-scale, full-color photographs of interior spaces of cultural or political importance: the hotel room where L. Ron Hubbard worked on "Dianetics," the barn that served as a studio for Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner, the kitchen of the compound where Saddam Hussein was captured. These rooms look eerily smooth, very believable and exclusively absent of people — because they are in fact impeccable 3-D models Demand builds out of paper and photographs, and then destroys.
His recent pictures at the Graham Foundation look nothing like any of this, and it is to Demand's great credit that he is both brave and inventive enough an artist to make such an exciting and provocative departure from his more familiar body of work. Never before has Demand depicted models constructed by someone else, models so run-down that glue dots and pinholes and frayed edges are visible. Nor has he taken photographs from angles and ranges that upend any sense of orientation or dimensionality. For all that Lautner may have envisioned his architectural creations as odd, he certainly never imagined them as strange as this.
To make these images, Demand worked with a dozen deteriorated models he discovered in the archives of the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles. Lautner's cardboard and foil constructions served as working tools for spaces never realized rather than polished mock-ups for presenting to clients, and Demand makes the most of their unrefined state. Bringing the camera close-up reveals the art deco beauty of curved cardboard edges as they catch the sun, a beauty all the more astonishing as it emerges from roughly cut material marked with pencil scratches and ragged cuts. Tight framing discloses the collisional interest of Plexiglas panels, scored pasteboard, a line of opaque glue and various unidentifiable materials, which might or might not include salt and painted Styrofoam. A bird's-eye view on a set of amber stairs — at least, that's what I think it is, or was, though my hypothesis may be based on having ascended a grand staircase to reach this particular photograph — transforms them into an angular, undulating surface of vertical ridges.
In their flatness and abject materiality, Demand's photographs seem at first to belong to the history of collage and assemblage, even painted abstraction. And in many ways they do, but the genius and generosity of "Model Studies" is that it lets us ride Demand's own train of thought, getting on and off and back on again as it chugs along its meandering way. The journey is refreshingly free of art historical hierarchy, canonical references and any single overarching thesis.
First stop is a series of mesmerizing gelatin silver prints by Bruguiere from 1925 and 1930. Bruguiere was the owner of commercial studios in San Francisco, New York and London, but it was as the official photographer of the New York Theater Guild in the 1920s that he learned the lighting techniques used in the cut-paper experiments on display here. The results are a dozen-and-a-half marvelously surreal images of sharp, graceful shapes and lines, voids and planes that sometimes do and sometimes don't reveal their genesis in paper, light and shadow. A few suggest close-ups of flowers or body parts, but most invent dramatic nonspaces best described as pure abstraction. In a digital age with few limits on what can be conjured virtually, it's exhilarating to be reminded of what can be created through the combination of tangible materials manipulated by hand and a camera used simply. When Demand photographs Lautner's architectural models, something like this happens too.
Next come some 60 thumbnail prints of projects built by students at VKhUTEMAS to solve spatial and design problems posed in their space and volume courses. The school grounded the teaching of art, design and architecture in the political ideals of the new Soviet state. Like Lautner's models, nothing here was actually intended to be built; everything is a tool for working out an idea in real rather than mental or 2-D space. Unlike Demand's photographs, however, these records were shot in as straightforward a manner as possible, presenting complete facades and side views of their monolithic paper and fragile wire subjects. Pictured differently, perhaps they'd radiate the reveries of a Bruguiere. Displayed as they are, a hundred years of built spaces come to mind, from Einstein's Tower in Potsdam, Germany, to Frank Lloyd Wright's Guggenheim Museum to Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Bilbao and even the ubiquitous concrete parking garage.
"Model Studies" concludes with its most unexpected — and thus revelatory — component. Six pencil drawings torn from a sketchbook that Leger kept while serving as a sapper in WWI depict soldiers playing cards, resting in a shelter and just sitting idly; a rare screenplay from 1920 includes four witty illustrations by Leger of Charlie Chaplin. Resembling not so much fleshy humans as robots fitted out with cylindrical steel components, these people are as unmistakably Leger's as they are citizens of a rapidly mechanizing modern world. Perhaps the most striking thing about them, however, is just how real they also are, despite their deeply stylized and analytical forms. They're not conjured from thin air but from the trenches of the Marne and Verdun, as well as from the hand of the individual artist who was present there.
For all that Leger's tubular people may not look it — nor VKhUTEMAS' bold little models, Bruguiere's cut-paper fancies or Demand's disorienting revisions — they're all grounded in the world of space, things and people. They're models, but models of reality.
"Model Studies" runs through June 1 at the Graham Foundation, 4 W. Burton Place, 312-787-4071, grahamfoundation.org.
Lori Waxman is a special contributor to the Chicago Tribune, and an instructor at the School of the Art Institute.
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