The American Way

Andrea Zittel makes art by reinventing her life

About the only thing you can touch are the big foam couches in front of the video about Zittel's projects in her California desert outpost A-Z West near Joshua Tree National Park. The couches are hacked out of dark gray foam rubber and mimic rock formations. (They're really comfortable -- I wrote most of this review sitting on one.) The idea of just sawing up big blocks of foam to make your furniture is brilliant. Zittel chose the dark color so it wouldn't show dirt; she just thinks of everything. She's also full of helpful tips. In her video, she reveals her secret for keeping a tidy home: After your morning shower, you have to pick up five things before you put on each piece of clothing. Then, voilà, you're dressed and the house is clean. She does concede that this system doesn't work well if you have houseguests.

Speaking of houseguests, Zittel has a whole series of works that address the desire to escape and to be alone. A-Z Deserted Island (1997) is an amoeboid shape with undulating white fiberglass topography. A white vinyl boat seat nestles in the middle; climb aboard, solitude awaits. The same idea attained epic proportions in Prototype for A-Z Pocket Property (2000), a ten- by 30- by 60-foot concrete island she fabricated off the coast of Denmark and lived on/in. A rocky-looking concrete hill planted with foliage contained the living quarters. It's a fantastic idea -- Huck Finn's raft meets a Robinson Crusoe RV.

Her series of A-Z Escape Vehicles (1996) look like mini-travel trailers. About five feet high and seven feet long, they're just big enough for one or two people to sit inside. Three are on view, customized by their owners. One outfitted her trailer with a bar, a stereo and an interior upholstered in powder-blue velvet. (It looks cozy but kind of like a casket interior.) Another turned his into a saltwater flotation tank. And for her own vehicle, Zittel created a fake rock grotto with water and colored lights. Unlike Zittel's chamber pot, the idea of having your own go-anywhere private fantasy space is really appealing.

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


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

Wardrobe is also an important part of Zittel's world, and a phalanx of mannequins models her "uniforms." The idea started when she worked at a day job in a sleek NY gallery, making little money. She had to dress nicely, so she decided to create one perfect piece of clothing that she wore every day. Since then she has continued the project, designing other outfits and wearing them for a season. Recently she has been doing a lot of labor-intensive crocheted dresses and felted jumpers.

For A-Z Free Running Patterns and Rhythms (in an isolated human subject), Zittel explored her relationship to time and how she organized it: She tried to live without time for a week. With all outside stimulus shut off, she decided she would sleep when she felt like it and work when she felt like it. She documented the results in an elaborate presentation where she color-coded her various activities and recorded the times. It's an interesting project, but the presentation of the results is less successful. The whole piece is presented in bar charts on wood panels that impose an arbitrary and distracting aesthetic over the information. Zittel used small grainy video photographs to record her activities, but then she included large gouache illustrations that seem extraneous. These illustrations occur elsewhere in the show and never feel quite right. Early on in Zittel's work they had more of an ironic, advertisement feeling to them that worked better. I think Zittel likes doing them, and they certainly provide a smaller and easily salable component to her work, but they just seem out of place and unnecessary.

Andrea Zittel, like many of us, embraces the naive belief that if only her environment and her life were properly designed and organized, things would be perfect. We've all tried something similar, but most of us were never systematic enough about it to make it into art. She not only doggedly pursues her sometimes Sisyphean goals, she's generating some fascinating art from the process.

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