Jorge Pardo: Living Without Boundaries

Jorge Pardo is one of the most influential taste-makers of the late ’90s. He has all the cachet of a Rem Koolhaas, the Gap, or Arne Jacobsen. Moving through exhibition spaces like an interior designer on Prozac, Pardo negotiates pretentious style with pedestrian needs. He tows a short line between apathy and passion, dragging behind him the issues of craft, function, and aesthetics in an effort to define and undermine the social, economic, and psychological manifestations of late 20th-century taste.

Untitled, 1997. Mixed media, 26 ft. Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago.

P. Reilly writes: “The eccentricities of the intellectual in one generation have a way of becoming the accepted standard for the discriminating in the next” (Idea, no. 5, 1953, p. 12). By grafting the traditional forms of architecture, furniture design, and graphic design to sculpture and installation, Pardo establishes a new attitude toward taste and style-an attitude that doesn’t presume social status but formal values. “Pardo is not attempting to give new weight to craft or industrial design, as, for example, John Ruskin and William Morris were. Rather, his subtle play with both genres is an intelligent crossover of design and free, unapplied art; it posits a model for seeing things differently,” states Yilmaz Dziewior in a recent review of Pardo’s work (Artforum, November 1995, p. 100).

This year Pardo will complete three important museum projects in the United States alone. His elaborate project at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago involved weekly installations in the project space and the site-specific dry docking of an altered 29-foot-long-by-9-foot-wide sailboat in the MCA’s atrium. In collaboration with Tobias Rehberger, Pardo participated in the Guggenheim Museum SoHo’s “Rooms with a View: Environments for Video.” In conjunction with the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, Pardo is working on the long-awaited 3,800-square-foot residence which will serve as his living space and as the site for selected works of art from the MOCA’s permanent collection.

Untitled, 1995. Installation at Gallerie Borgmann, Cologne, Germany. Mixed-media installation. Dimensions variable. Friedrich Petzel Gallery.

With its nose pointed at Lake Michigan-less than two city blocks away-Pardo’s Santa Cruz 27 racing craft at MCA is a proud testament to two revolutionary designers: West Coast boat builder Bill Lee and early 20th-century architect Rudolph Schindler. Purging the vessel’s shell of its superfluous amenities-leaving only the mast and deck railing-Pardo’s brawny, albeit sleek, Fiberglas form gleams with a pure white finish. The effect is that of an enormous plaster cast dotted with subtle rigging. Below deck Pardo constructs a clean minimal interior inspired by the 1922 house that Modernist architect Rudolph Schindler built as his California residence.

In an interview discussing the redesign of the boat with MCA curator Amada Cruz, Pardo responded, “The inspiration of Schindler is not a one-to-one relationship. I like the economy and invention of the Schindler House. I want to invoke Schindler through the changes that I make to the boat. I am interested in how streamlined one can be when referring to a house or an architect or a historical situation. It’s not going to be a Schindler house inside the boat. It’s more like an attitude towards the economy of the materials and spatial relationships” (Jorge Pardo, exhibition catalogue, Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, and The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, 1997).

Pardo’s boat is a hybrid product that weaves together the mass-produced hull of the Santa Cruz 27 with a customized architectural design. He confuses the lesser value of mass taste with the distinctive value of unique taste; the consumer with the patron; the client with the window shopper. “Pardo’s basic assumption seems to be that art-goers are also shoppers,” states writer Suvan Geer (“Jorge Pardo Gets Honest About Hype,” LA Times, August 2, 1991). And conversely, that shoppers are also art-goers who are equally capable of appreciating materials and spatial relationships.

Installation of Local Adhesives, 1997. Mixed-media installation. MOCA, Chicago.

Pardo’s appropriation of design runs parallel with Andrea Zittel’s appropriation of style/lifestyle. Her living units are efficient stylizations of High Modern interiors. However, Zittel’s intentions are utopic and holistic. She attempts to heal the mind, body, and soul of the viewer-inhabitant. Her prototypes of mobile, simplistic domestic spaces “liberate the user from an overwhelming barrage of decisions and responsibilities by consolidating all living needs into a small, organized living unit” (from a letter to Linda Weintraub by Andrea Zittel, 1994). Pardo, on the other hand, has no such visionary intent. Pardo, like the best designers, plays first to the eye and then to the mind, leaving social welfare at the steps of the Los Angeles Municipal Building.

In his series of week-long installations in the MCA’s project space, Pardo further complicates taste’s currency in the material world. Using permanent collection pieces, children’s drawings, didactic wall information and commercial adhesives, he insouciantly screws with the little taste value the art museum has reserved in its coffers. One display featured the juxtaposition of a Martin Puryear sculpture with a Frank Gehry corrugated cardboard dining set. Propped on brightly colored platforms designed by Pardo, the two objects stimulated a dialogue between meaning and function, design and sculpture, furniture and form. Here again, Pardo equates one-of-a-kind sculpture with mass-producible design. Where Puryear employs natural wood, Gehry uses an inexpensive wood byproduct. Yet by mounting both works on attention-grabbing risers, Pardo offers them both as fine art on pedestals in an art museum and as manufactured products found in a high-end specialty store.

During another week Pardo took the liberty of installing a series of drawings made by his two young nephews. Their clumsy lines of marker and color pencil scribe out favorite cartoon figures in a spatially naive style: the same style so many modern artists have attempted to imitate (one drawing in particular had the possibility of being a portrait homage to Uncle Jorge or perhaps it was just a loose interpretation of Fred Flintstone). Minimally installed throughout the space, these drawings shared the walls with a monumental wall text introducing the names and birth dates of the young artists. Pardo’s appropriation of standardized museum didactics graphically compete in scale and style with the genuine renderings of the children. This use of institutionalized rhetoric casts ironic suspicion on museum practice and its pretentious role as cultural arbiter. By installing elementary school drawings on the museum walls, Pardo treats the authority of the art institution with the same casual attitude as a parent (or uncle) treats a refrigerator whose surface is cluttered with kid’s art and ghastly magnets.

Pier (included in Sculpture Projects Münster 1997). Mixed-media installation. Roman Mensing.

Week four and week seven ushered in a display of adhesives from a local Chicago company. This time Pardo transformed the MCA’s project space into a highly aestheticized trade show. Pardo relies on the same institutional authority he critiques to heighten the formal qualities of this taken-for-granted medium. “The relationship that the things have [is] pretty tenuous…What does it take for a relationship to be worth something in a work of art? It’s a question that runs through my work. What’s the minimum expectation in a juxtaposition between one thing and another” (Jorge Pardo, catalogue, op.cit.).

Every fine craftsperson has a deep appreciation for adhesives. Both professional and hobbyist know the search for the right glue can be an arduous one-like a painter finding the ideal brush or a chef finding the perfect knife. Also, for an adhesive to be successful it must be invisible on the finished project. In this display, Pardo is giving the adhesive its long-overdue applause, reminding the viewer and artisan alike that adhesives are not only essential to craft but beautiful in their own right.

A synthesis of Jeff Koons and Fred Wilson, Pardo regularly crosses the borders that once protected art from the banalities of the everyday (Linda Weintraub, “Art on the Edge and Over,” 1996, Art Insights, p. 203). However, unlike Koons and Wilson, Pardo does it absentmindedly. There is no room for the heralding of kitsch or the politic of racial equity in his search for slick obtainable taste. His philosophies toward materials, invention, and critique are also indebted to Richard Artschwager and his prolific use of Formica. And like Artschwager, Pardo is an artist who has a command of design and industrial material rather than a designer seeking alternative marketing strategies. By eroding the distinction between the practices, Pardo opens up the neglected territories of practical high art and design for mere stylistic innovation.

Rooms with a View: Environments for Video. (Background) Jorge Pardo, Vince Robbins, 1997. Bent plywood, latex paint, Velcro, plastic, steel, light bulb, and electrical wire. Dimensions variable. (Foreground) Tobias Rehberger, Suck.Watch.Sucked.Watch., 1997. (TV spheres) Styrofoam, wood, polar fleece, monitor, and wire rope, each 24 in.

Invited by the Guggenheim Museum Soho and Deutsche Telekom Galleries to participate in “Rooms with a View: Environments for Video,” Pardo, along with artists Tobias Rehberger, Dan Graham, Angela Bulloch, and Vito Acconci, created sites receptive for viewing artist’s videos. Installing a labyrinth of interlocking plywood dividing screens, Pardo’s gallery married ’70s retro hip with modern architecture and contemporary loft-living practicality. Hinged firmly together with Velcrotm, the delicately bent, sunflower-yellow panels clustered in the space potentially ready for domestic arrangements. Yet under the glow of a single hanging lamp-spilling out arks of yellow light-the room was gloriously hypnotic in abstraction terms alone. Repetition, saturated color, confusion, and order so strongly permeated the atmosphere that viewing the videos from Rehberger’s two futurist orbs-also suspended in the space-became a challenge. Installed next to Acconci’s video monitor jungle gym, Pardo and Rehberger’s environment beckoned viewers with civility: eliciting memories of mom’s Lemon Pledge kitchen and a junior high rec-room, complete with glowing lava lamps and shag carpet.

While Pardo regularly mines the museum, he also mines the home. His four-year project, “a sculpture that is also a house,” started out in 1994 as an edition of 10 books or sculptures (Pardo makes reference to them as catalogues) with foldouts and pop-up schematic drawings. The nearly completed residence in Los Angeles’ Mount Washington area is designed to be a domestic extension of MOCA. When asked about the relationship between the sailboat and the house, Pardo responded, “It relates just in terms of my interest in doing something that’s in the world. The kind of object that the boat is, is very similar to the kind of object the house is. One of the ways they relate is they are both these objects that mediate information. I use the house and the boat like a camera; I run subjects through them. I am interested in the scale of exhibitions, and when I say scale I mean the scale of the scope of an exhibition” (Jorge Pardo, catalogue, op.cit.).

Rosa (East-West Contact Center, Leipzig Trade Fair), 1996. Mixed-media installation.

Inspired by architects Ray and Charles Eames, Richard Neutra, Craig Ellwood, and John Lautner, Pardo’s single-story structure recounts the conventional post-war designs of the 1950s and 1960s. Even though Pardo is required to follow Los Angeles’ building codes and ordinances, he does have the autonomy to select work from MOCA’s permanent collection and create a decor in his new home that will best feature those borrowed treasures. Opening up his house to museum-goers for the duration of the exhibition and living in a museum display is not necessarily a ground-breaking concept. Chris Burden, Vito Acconci, and Dan Graham are only a few of many artists who engage architecture as a vehicle to heighten the issues of public space versus private space. What is exciting about Pardo’s house is that he continues to jump over the political ramifications of his projects in favor of “good” design, solid craft, and hip, retro style.

In the past, taste values filtered their way down the social and economic ladder. This linear progression of style and fashion has changed with the development of mass production and mass consumption, thus leaving the capitalists in charge of taste. Pardo has taken on the role of taste-maker, not to ordain himself with aristocratic privilege, but to open up design possibilities to the unquestioning consumer. Pardo is also doing more for the sculptural language by side-stepping sculpture and object-making altogether. Working from the outside (in the arena of potential mass design) he passionately preaches the word of material, form, spatial relations, and craft to the entireconsuming populace-not just to a small group of art collectors.

Michelle Grabner is an artist and writer living in Wisconsin.