Back in 1989, when debates over postmodernism were still in full swing, theorist Hal Foster wrote in the introduction to his seminal collection The Anti-Aesthetic, “Postmodernism: does it exist at all and, if so, what does it mean? Is it a concept or a practice, a matter of local style or a whole new period or economic phase?” In truth, because postmodernism as a concept never really went away, what has returned is a PoMo style and reevaluation of period practices.
This past March the clothing line American Apparel released a capsule collection with Nathalie Du Pasquier. The designer and artist was a member of the Milan-based Memphis Group, the design collective founded by Ettore Sottsass in 1981. Fall 2014 saw two exhibitions commemorating 50-years work by architect Michael Graves, who was also a Memphis member. This show, Past as Prologue, on view at Grounds for Sculpture, was accompanied by powerhouse symposium of the same name. The celebration, however, comes at a moment when Graves’ most iconic design of postmodern importance, the Portland Building in Oregon, faces a demolition threat. The boxy office building frosted in pastel hues and abstracted historical pastiche opened in 1982 and three decades later needs a multimillion-dollar upgrade. In short, the verdict is that it is cheaper to tear down the unloved structure and rebuild than save it for historical merit.
This November the A+D Museum in Los Angeles opened an exhibition by Peter Shire, another former Memphis Group collaborator. Curated by Jo Lauria, Peter Shire: Public Work, Lines Of Desire features the Los Angeles-based artist’s public and private architectural commissions. In the late 1970s one of Shire’s ceramic teapots published in WET: The Magazine of Gourmet Bathing caught Sottsass’ attention. Taken by the object’s geometries and glazes evocative of the highs and lows of Californian living, the Italian designer invited the L.A. artist to join the Milan collective.
Memphis may have disbanded in 1988, but Shire’s practice never lagged. He’s shown in cities across the globe and his work, executed in his Echo Park studio, continues to push against modernism’s dictates. While he still makes teapots out of slab clay and powder-coated metal, they have evolved over the years into outrageously complex affairs that defy functionalism—German Werkbund meets Constructivist whimsy.
The show at the A+D Museum, however, investigates a lesser-known part of his career. Shire designed artwork and interiors for Los Angeles's metro stations (MTA) and was part of the design team for the 1984 Olympics with environmental designer Deborah Sussman. The checklist also includes a 1990 sculptural installation commissioned by Sapporo Corporation in Japan and, closer to home, a 2012 public art project in nearby Ventura County.
The gallery is filled with dozens of models, sculptural elements, sketches, and drawings representing Shire's forays into larger-scale design and public sculpture—all set against vibrant coloured walls and columns painted in wide stripes. Angelitos and Devilitos – polychromatic steel and aluminum angel and devil sculptures – hang in the A+D Museum’s storefront. Originally produced for a L.A. MTA station, the charming figures delight in form and as wordplay on the City of Angels (and devils).
Long tables display nearly two-dozen architectural models. They include the red and black as-built model for Citizens to Save Elysian Park, the Glass-Simons Memorial at Angel’s Point, Los Angeles from 1993, as well as another as-built from 2001, the US Border Station, Brownsville, Texas. Depicted is a figure balanced on a tightrope between two lookout stations, an allusion to the tenuous plight of immigrants at the border. The abundance of maquettes speaks of Shire’s abundant production, yet they fail to seduce as objects.
Perhaps it is the diminutive scale of the models—most are around 18 by 18 inches — or the simple fact that they are representations. By contrast, Garage Your Desires, Shire’s ten tile studies for the Santa Monica Parking Structure seem to animate the same themes as the models—cars, tightropes, angles, freeway landscapes—in black gouache on paper. His 1991 proposal drawing entitled Best of All Possibilities, captures a kind of dynamism suitable for a subway system. Drawn at an isometric angle in gouache and graphite, the piece pays homage to El Lissitzy’s prouns, which rely on abstract geometrics to imply three-dimensional space.
Although Shire would reject a postmodernist label, and certainly distain the implications of a PoMo revival, his work nevertheless continues what we might call a postmodern tradition of pastiche. He brings meaning, local history, and humor into all his pieces, but the constructed linework and freestyled gouache display a particular freshness. The drawings underscore that Shire’s work succeeds best when it conveys a critical immediacy that transcends stylistic and temporal conceits.