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The American Way

Andrea Zittel makes art by reinventing her life

If you've ever built a tree house, tried to exist in a dorm room, gone camping, rearranged your home, attempted to organize your office or intently read a fashion magazine article about things like easy-travel wardrobes, you'll relate to the work of artist Andrea Zittel. "Andrea Zittel: Critical Space" at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston contains works from 1991 to 2005 and was co-curated by the CAMH's Paola Morsiani and Trevor Smith of New York's New Museum of Contemporary Art. This much work brought together at once is an amazing chance to experience Zittel's art and point of view.

Zittel is constantly designing, building and reinventing her living space, her workspace, her furniture, her wardrobe, her diet, her schedule, her sense of time…she takes the process to such extremes that it has become her artwork. There's something extremely American about Zittel's work: Americans firmly believe we can find a way to reinvent and improve every aspect of how we live our lives. It's in our pioneer heritage and in our pop culture. Just as our ancestors settled and "transformed" the West, today whole television programs are dedicated to transforming Americans' lives by redecorating their homes, remaking their wardrobes or reorganizing their junk-filled guest rooms. The frontier is interior. Perfection is out there, just beyond our grasp.

Zittel started creating her living environments in cramped New York spaces such as the 200-square-foot Brooklyn storefront she lived in during the early '90s. She began designing compact units that could accommodate multiple functions -- eating, sleeping, working -- using welded steel frames and plywood as her basic construction materials. When closed, her A-Z Living Unit (1993) resembles a mattress-size plywood trunk stood on end. Opened, it reveals shelves with dishes, a hot plate, a toaster oven, a desk/dining area with a light and file cabinets. The amenities are rounded out with a closet, a folding camp stool and a collapsible cot.

For some solitude, climb aboard A-Z Deserted 
Island.
Courtesy of CAMH
For some solitude, climb aboard A-Z Deserted Island.

Details

Through January 1.
Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, 5216 Montrose, 713-284-8250.

Aesthetically, with all that birch plywood, her work has a kooky sort of '70s Soviet furniture design look to it, which could be ominous, in a roundabout way. Constructivist artists involved with the early Soviet government thought they could redesign and improve aspects of daily life. All that idealism went to hell pretty quickly. Some critics have called Zittel's work fascist and controlling, but I see it as exploratory and enthusiastic. She wants to share these cool solutions she's come up with, not force everyone to live in them.

The Living Unit seems doable, if Spartan, but the A-Z Body Processing Unit (1993), which is theoretically usable, would be a tough sell. It combines facilities for eating and excreting into one compact unit that folds up to suitcase size. There's a bin for water and one for food, as well as a hot plate and a pullout counter. There's a pullout sink that drains into a galvanized bucket. At the bottom of the food area, fittingly, is a pullout box with a hole and another galvanized metal bucket underneath. I guess you might be grateful for it if you were living under a bridge, but the work is more of a conceptual exercise combining related activities that most people never want anywhere near one another.

Most of Zittel's more scatological works occurred early in her career, like the A-Z Chamber Pot (1993). She created it because she "decided bathrooms were tyrannical," according to an interview in her exhibition catalog. It's a beautiful, rounded, shiny pot with a concave lid with a hole in the middle. One museum visitor looked at it and exclaimed, "Oh, a spittoon!" I suppose it's great if you don't have any other options, but I don't know who among us wants to be freed from the tyranny of conventional plumbing so that we can shit in any room of the house.

But at its core Zittel's work is smart and generally down-to-earth, with her ideas growing out of practical problems. She's made telephone-booth-size "cool" chambers and "hot" chambers. For a neighbor with no furniture she designed "carpets" with the geometric silhouettes of beds and dining room tables -- they had the added ironic bonus of looking like modernist paintings. Later works like the A-Z Homestead Unit (2001-2005) are independent paneled structures of such a tiny square footage that they can be erected without a permit, although they don't seem to have much in the way of insulation. For better or worse, Zittel purposely avoids wandering too far into architecture.

Zittel explored and reallocated space in another work, A-Z Cellular Compartment Units (2001). For the project, she created units to subdivide a normal room into two levels -- shades of Being John Malkovich. Half-height bedrooms, offices and kitchens are stacked on top of each other, replicating like cells. It seems like an efficient idea in theory, but the results have to be claustrophobic as hell. You can't find out for yourself, however, because, like almost every other work in the show, you can't climb inside it or touch it. While this is standard protocol for museum exhibitions, it's especially disappointing with Zittel's work. You want to experience this stuff physically, not just visually. Supposedly people can interact with her work when it debuts in gallery shows, but here all the works are already a part of public and private collections, so everybody's paranoid about them.

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