Art and Craft

Jim Isermann renders his work -- "flower power" furniture, shag-rug "paintings," stained-glass panels, stitched fabric wall hangings and other decorative objects -- with an emphatically hip '60s bearing that brings to mind bell-bottoms and Brady Bunch bedspreads. He's long been known as the retro master, and for those unfamiliar with his work, the 15-year survey at DiverseWorks is revelatory.

For his 1982 debut, Isermann filled a room at the Inn of Tomorrow (across from Disneyland) with re-creations of '50s-style furniture, including a giant chartreuse TV. He reasoned that modern furniture had taken cues from art from the '30s and '40s -- Jean Arp's biomorphs, Alexander Calder's mobiles, Piet Mondrian's grids, Joan Miró's glyphs. By taking cues from furniture, he was bringing things full circle.

"Isermann's installations recycle designs that are doubly unfashionable," writes curator David Pagel in the catalog accompanying the DiverseWorks show. "Having gone out of style many years ago, the outdated interior decorations he rescues from thrift stores and flea markets are, at their best, only bastardizations of high modernist abstractions -- which themselves have fallen on tough times as they languish in many museums' storage facilities."

Atom clocks and boomerang coffee tables, psychedelia and supergraphics -- Isermann adores symbols of obsolete optimism; they are both seductive and melancholic. He is ironic, yes -- but he leaves pissed-off cynicism to other, younger artists.

Most of his works have the flavor of hand-crafted Op; Isermann makes everything himself. He pulled into place every stitch, braid and strand of shag; he made each section of leaded glass. A 90-year-old grandmother could not make quilts with seams more precise.

But don't be fooled by Isermann's populist streak. His craft-inspired media and references to '60s suburban design serve as a smokescreen; behind it lies eye-popping color and dazzling amalgamations of hard-edged geometric abstraction and pop art. The textures and surface patterns always challenge the eye -- but also fill the heart. The work is fun to look at.

You may feel a time warp as you step into DiverseWorks' front gallery. The centerpiece is a furniture ensemble. At the center is a coffee table shaped like a stylized flower; between its petals are five chairs woven from plastic webbing. Painted in a Playskool palette, the arrangement evokes everything from '50s lawn furniture to airport waiting rooms. That surrounding art -- daisies in clashing colors -- isn't just a nostalgic nod to flower power; a slight asymmetry transforms the flowers into eye-boggling patterns that seem to move. When you stand back and view the room as a whole, what seemed like a stage set made of disparate objects reveals handsome orchestration. Pattern and color dance giddily.

Isermann's fabric pieces -- stitched-together swatches and remnants purchased at swap meets -- play perceptual games. One quilt design recalls the simplicity of the Amish; another deploys brashly colored artificial and natural fabrics to form daisy motifs that zigzag across rows of intricate plaids and concentric pinwheels. As usual, the viewer must fight to stay focused on the overall pattern.

Conversely, Isermann's recent "Weaves" are as humble as dish towels. Both simple and sophisticated, they hang loosely against the wall, big squares of plaid and herringbone patterns. These woven fabrics reject the idea that art is meant to be detached from everyday life.

The works dignify feminine media such as weaving and rugmaking by treating them as high art; Isermann embraces feminist calls for inclusion. The same pieces also point out the difficulties of another kind of outsider: a gay artist striving to find himself in the scheme of things. In Isermann's case, he has literally made a better world for himself.

-- Susie Kalil

Jim Isermann's works show through October 24 at DiverseWorks, 1117 East Freeway, 223-8346.


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