Honfleur Gallery and Mexican Cultural Institute exhibits pit art against design

Industrial: A necklace from Andrea Miller's
Industrial: A necklace from Andrea Miller's "Peripheral Systems." (Andrea Miller)
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By Jessica Dawson
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, June 18, 2010

Here at Galleries we're in a World Cup frame of mind, so we've decided to pit two arch rivals in a contest that could surpass Friday's U.S. vs. Slovenia Group C match.

Our contest: Art vs. Design.

The Favorite: Art. Perfected by the Greeks and tweaked for millenniums, art has hosted history's wiliest strikers and enjoyed countless championships.

The Underdog: Design. The club has a strong history: Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Gerrit Rietveld and Marcel Duchamp made important contributions, elevating Team Design to championship levels. Yet prejudices linger. "Too commercial," "Too entwined with consumer culture," critics say. Or maybe just too close to everyday life for comfort?

Team Art's edge grew from its sometimes guarded level of remove from quotidian affairs -- these were objects to be admired, not touched or used. That advantage fell away in the 20th century, and parsing significant differences between the two clubs got harder.

Remember 1925? That year's match was over Marcel Breuer's then-brand-new tubular-steel Wassily Chair, inspired by the bicycle frame. Today, the iconic object sits on a MoMA pedestal as a triumph of both art and design. You can eyeball it like an art object or sit in it (or its knockoff) to enjoy Breuer's Bauhaus rigor. That 1925 contest ended in a draw.

In today's match, we pit two exhibitions against each other. One features art objects fashioned from industrial materials. The other asks that we view commercial products as art objects. Let's see how each side fares.

'Objectified'

Playing for Team Art, we have Anacostia's Honfleur Gallery, where four artists present objects and conceptual jewelry inspired by (and incorporating) construction-site detritus and office-building HVAC systems. Team Design is represented by the Mexican Cultural Institute, where a large-scale, multi-floor exhibition of commercial design -- lamps, chairs, dental-floss holders -- offers objects that are meant to be used.

"Objectified: The Domestication of the Industrial" at Honfleur culls objects related to commercial products -- building materials, toasters -- that are scaled down for personal or domestic settings.

There's apocalyptic humor to Andrea Miller's necklaces, one of which features a mini HVAC duct. Miller fabricates small versions of everyday items into a thinking person's jewelry. In a series of photographs presented here, models pose, like intellectual Flavor Flavs, with small-scale commercial parts dangling from their necks. Miller's objects, five in all, hang adjacent to the pictures.

Miller calls the pieces "Peripheral Systems." She's interested in how these ubiquitous materials live at the periphery of our awareness. (You need only look to the gallery's ceiling, with its exposed ductwork, to find Miller's prototypes.) Part of her aim is to remind us how central these items are to our existence.

But there's also a sinking feeling associated with wearing four inches of HVAC ducting around your neck. The thing suggests a gas mask or some future world where we may need personal breathing units to survive.


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