Design Within Reach
by Kat Herriman
I am most at home inside myself or so I think. Everything I buy becomes a part of me, a hateful new appendage to take care of just like Julio Cortázar warned me in his Instructions.
If only I’d just bought a watch instead of the leathery couch, the bony lamp and the marble countertop which reminds me of my own veins slowly rising through the paleness of my leg. Where do I end and where does my house begin?
At this moment of material self-inspection, I find Hannah Levy, who explores the figure and its politics through the objects we surround ourselves with. In her world, the living and the inanimate act as one—all gesturing in their own way towards the same truths.
Levy stresses this fluidity by taking conflation to its logical extreme. In her sculptures, the things we consume (baguettes and croissants) are indistinguishable from the surfaces (tables, tiles and chairs) upon which we serve them and the structures (arms and hands) that bring them inside us.
Her work disguises itself as mundane to hide its ambition. It is not about creating bodily ambience; it’s about looking at the values these relationships betray. It is a big, vicious mouth licking its teeth, repeating: “You are what you eat.”
At first, the message feels universal, almost a trope. But Levy’s investigations are more pointed than that. She wields the clichés and triumphs of modern design as a mirror—one that reflects back a disturbing predilection for the white body.
Levy accesses this subversive fetishism using subtle changes in process, scale and context. For example, in Swamp Salad, her debut solo show at Brooklyn gallery Clearing, the artist stretched silicone hides over nickel-plated steel lounge chairs inspired by industrial designer Charlotte Perriand. Lying in a row, her sunbathing furniture suggests a kind of country club atmosphere—a space defined by its exclusionary membership policies and inheritance. The static puddle of pearls resting on top of each lounger pushes this image further. What tackiness one finds playing within the pretty confines of good taste.
While ergonomic armatures and oysters feel like yesteryear’s luxuries, their language continues to persist as Levy demonstrates through her cheeky blending of the contemporary and modern color palette. Her deployment of pink is no coincidence: the artist’s liberal intermingling of peach and beige creates a baseline that exposes the way white skin tones are privileged in what is branded in culture as neutral, hygienic, feminine and even sexy.
I need not look into my bathroom cabinet to see the way these ideas express themselves in my own products—some of which are literally applied to their inspiration. I find the taste of my own tail a recurring theme in my encounters with Levy.
In staring into her recent window display at Bergdorf Goodman’s on New York’s Fifth Avenue, I not only saw my reflection but its inanimate counterpart: a faceless mannequin clad in beige tulle surrounded by sharp claws offering floppy spears of asparagus as if they were accessories rather than sustenance. It felt like fashion had finally come full circle. We are selling us back to ourselves.
Levy has used clothing in the past as a way to draw out the chilling proximity between stuff and us. At MoMA PS1, I remember her installing a silicone hoodie whose empty arms scraped the floor. The absent body left just enough room for the viewer to imagine themselves crawling into it. The puffy plastic form’s inviting matte made it almost impossible not to.
Tactile seduction is germane to Levy’s installations and sculptures. Its nature is documented in the superlatives lavished on it in the press: “quietly kinky,” “fleshy but slick,” “erotic.” This physical collapse between intimate and commercial space helps sew together Levy’s thesis. Material attraction becomes more than a punch line or come-on. It is a skin that reminds the viewer of their own touch.
The close-to-home-ness of Levy’s message is the source of its horror and its humor. In placating her viewer with the familiar and its antecedents, she buries them alive. The body is not a safe space but a battleground, and the consequences of that conflict extend into everything that surrounds us.
Seeing my body through Levy’s lens, I’m struck by my own culpability in upholding the inequity of the status quo. The clean line and the white space are myths that I maintain through my diet, my closet, my home.
How does one escape these insidious patterns? Levy doesn’t offer us an answer, but she does offer hope. Like her sculptures, these ideas are not impervious but fragile and impermanent like their models. Capable of breaking under the slightest tug or bite, her dysfunctional furniture and food suggest that the values they hold are just as malleable, and that perhaps others values, and another world, may yet be possible. So strap on your watch, your couch, your lamp, your countertop, and let’s head towards death together—arm in arm, foot in mouth.
All images Courtesy: the artist