The Spencer's home-decorating show smells funny.

Where'd You Get That

The Spencer's home-decorating show smells funny.

Bernice Steinbaum, who owns galleries in New York City and Miami, has been an art dealer for 25 years. She claims she can't remember a single week of that time when at least one client didn't ask to see a painting to hang over the sofa. "I have seen paint chips, fabric swatches, wallpaper samples, room layouts and architectural drawings, all in an effort to clarify the kind of painting needed for over the sofa," she writes in her exhibit catalog. In all such instances, she adds, the work of art becomes secondary to the sofa.

Fed up with all the couch-centric collecting, Steinbaum put together A Painting for Over the Sofa (That's Not Necessarily a Painting), a traveling exhibit that's been on the road for more than two years and is now at the University of Kansas' Spencer Museum of Art. Steinbaum has gathered 18 works by well-known contemporary artists, including Hung Liu, Joe Walters, Louis Bourgeois and Jaune Quick-to-See Smith. Each photograph, sculpture, print or painting, many of them created specifically for this show, hangs above an inflatable couch. The blow-up furniture, each piece in one of three tiresome colors (tan, navy or forest green), is made of the same thick plastic used for air mattresses. The gallery stinks of rubber.

Putting the couches underneath each work and allowing visitors to sit on them is a gimmick -- one that's probably unnecessary. Steinbaum's subject alone should attract people other than art-museum regulars. In her years of experience, she has seen how the American public places significant importance on its living-room furniture; besides, home-makeover shows such as Trading Spaces have made it obvious that interior design is a hot topic. Nonetheless, Steinbaum encourages visitors to photograph themselves sitting on the couch beneath their favorite work, in hopes of creating a dialogue between artwork and audience.

Her primary intent seems to be to poke fun at people who see art as a home accessory, but the show also raises questions about contemporary art collecting. Two of the essays in the accompanying catalog lay out very disparate views. On the one hand, Steinbaum writes that, as curator, she hopes that "everyone who sees this exhibition will become more comfortable with good art in their homes." On the other hand, she also includes an essay in which critic Joel Weinstein argues that the exhibit "goes to great, mostly oblique lengths to show just how unsuitable art is as decoration, how much more it is than accouterment."

If you want to prove a point either way, you have to make a statement, but this show is too timid to say much. The quality and the appropriateness of the works are spotty, and the execution cuts corners that soften the impact of either message.

That includes the use of plastic couches instead of real sofas. "For too long, good art is something that we went to see in a museum," Steinbaum writes. "In this exhibition good art is seen in a domestic environment." But the Spencer's white walls and brown linoleum do little to evoke feelings of home.

The cheap couches also deflate the aesthetic value of the art hanging above them, even as they're bringing to mind financial issues surrounding the work on display. Many people don't have the money to buy original art; that's one reason museums house good art -- so that everyone can experience it. Still, it's difficult to imagine Mario Algaze's field hands worrying about fine-art purchases or going to museums. In his series of five black-and-white photographs, Algaze depicts South American and Caribbean city scenes and landscapes -- the dilapidated 1960s architecture of Havana, laborers working in fields. Imagine these photographs hanging above a luxurious leather living-room set, and suddenly it becomes obvious that this art is unlikely to be displayed in someone's home, a constant reminder of those less fortunate while the owner enjoys his or her expensive furniture.

Steinbaum included pieces like these because, as Weinstein points out, "each of these works has some evident, nagging complexity, rendering it useless as a color spot, overpowering as a pretty picture, too subtle for thickheaded stylishness." He goes on to describe the work as "observant, droll, argumentative, heart-breaking, show-offy, discomfiting, perplexing and memorable. "

The art in no way resembles the brain-numbing pastel fluff of a Thomas Kinkade painting, but Weinstein is overzealous in praising most of the work in this show. "Nagging," "useless" and "overpowering" might provide accurate descriptions in some cases, but by filling the show with bolder, more provocative work, Steinbaum could have pushed the show beyond fun and quirky into something thoughtful and challenging.

Miriam Schapiro's "Eastern Cantada," a fan-shaped canvas covered in bright blue, red and gold, Asian-inspired fabrics and geometric zigzags of flatly applied acrylic paint, fails to make any discernible statement that would render it objectionable for hanging over a couch. A swatch-wielding art collector might pass it up because it's too gaudy, but that's a banal reason to justify its inclusion in this show.

Most of the pieces that deal with "discomfiting" subject matter handle their unsettling themes in oblique or subtle ways; some simply miss their marks. In her ink drawing and collage pieces "Where Do We Come From?" and "The Changing Shape of America #2," Jaune Quick-to-See Smith asks philosophical and political questions -- politely. In the first piece, an abstract ink drawing of a figure appears against a blank, white background beneath the phrases "Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?" Although she raises the often-asked questions point-blank, her piece does little to answer them. For "The Changing Shape of America #2," Smith covers a rearranged map of the United States with newspaper and rust-red, blue and tan papers. She moves Texas and Florida (home states for members of a certain political family) to the bottom of the composition and enlarges them to twice the size of the rest of the country. But the work doesn't immediately come across as political, Smith's decoupage technique instead helps disguise it.

Rico Gatson's "Shelves & Klandles" deals with the Ku Klux Klan, but if it weren't for the title, viewers probably wouldn't recognize the dozens of multicolored wax blobs sitting on the white, wooden shelving as candles in the shape of Klan hoods.

The show seems to belittle the simple fact that people favor art that looks good. But Tim Curtis proves that art can be pretty but also embody intriguing concepts. His sculpture "Presage" consists of two delicately fashioned boatlike objects, one made of a light, sand-colored wood and the other of black wood. The light boat carries a cargo of long, black branches; the black boat hangs underneath, overturned and filled with white branches. Curtis references universal themes of life and death in his delicate and beautiful object.

In the end, Deborah Willis' "Red Nails" may best suit the show's objective. The photograph, which depicts a female bodybuilder, is cropped to show only the middle of her vein-lined thighs and the tips on three of her fingers tapering off long, shiny, red nails. This piece is hard to turn away from; the icky sexiness of the feminine red nails suggestively juxtaposed against the muscular thighs is captivating. Demanding to be the center of attention in any situation, it would be an obvious conversation starter at a cocktail party.

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