Daniel Arsham is a protean artist, as comfortable and adroit with brush or chisel as he is executing interior designs, stage sets and performances. This diversity emanates from a preoccupation with architecture and its impact on living creatures. In “Animal Architecture,” Arsham’s second solo exhibition in Paris (he lives in New York and Miami), he pondered anew the thorny relationship between nature and the built environment.
The main gallery featured Donkey, Fox, Ostrich and Kangaroo (all 2010 and ranging in width from 421⁄2 inches to 9 feet). These monumental gouache drawings, loosely based on Gustave Doré engravings, are hand-painted on Mylar, a support traditionally used for architectural renderings. (In a small side gallery was Rabbit, an homage to Arsham’s pet bunny that also evoked Dürer’s iconic hare.) Employing a rich range of blacks and blues, the artist depicted each animal motionless in a lush landscape and staring—in awe or bewilderment?—at imposing circular, rectangular and/or triangular blocks that float in midair. With this juxtaposition, Arsham intimates the despotism of modernist architecture, including its blind adherence to mathematical order and man-made materials—a style that maintains a chasm between Homo sapiens and other earthly beings. “When we are confronted with the animal’s ambiguous connection to a world designed for humans, we are better equipped to ask questions about our own relationships to architecture,” he said in an interview. Arsham speaks from experience; his own furry friend abhors right angles and hops freely about the studio, modified for her comfort.
Amid Arsham’s drawings stood two cubic sculptures, Six Erosions to the Center nos. 3 and 4 (both 2010 and 48 inches square). From solid slabs of dense EPS foam (a material used for faux architectural details), he carved what he terms “erosions” on all sides, boring deep into each cube’s core. While he followed no specific logic, Arsham did have in mind canyons and icebergs, both of which are subject to the erosive force of water. His process recalls previous projects in which pieces of sculpted foam were inserted into existing walls to suggest they had been worn away. The new Erosions are coated in drywall compound, plaster and Benjamin Moore Super White acrylic—all typically used for finishing walls.
“Animal Architecture” culminated with three ethereal sculptures called Pixel Clouds (all 2010). The artist based them on photographs of clouds he snapped with his cell phone and enlarged to expose their pixels. He then dipped thousands of corresponding Ping-Pong balls in paint that matched the billows’ Easter egg palette and glued them together in cloudlike formations. One was suspended in the gallery’s entryway and two other, larger ones hung in a side gallery. These seemingly delicate but durable creations resemble the colorful plastic models that assist students of organic chemistry in memorizing molecular structures and bonds—natural correlatives to architecture.
Obliging architecture “to do things it is not supposed to do,” Arsham underscored its fragility, and interrogated our often-uncritical embrace of the built environment.
Arsham’s exhibition was on view from Mar. 20-May 7.
Photos: left, Daniel Arsham: Donkey, 2010, gouache on Mylar, 731⁄4 by 673⁄4 inches. Right, Pixel Cloud (Miami), 2010, painted Ping-Pong balls, 351⁄2 by 1041⁄4 by 551⁄4 inches. Both at Emmanuel Perrotin.