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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.
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.
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.
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.