By the artistic re-appropriation of 20th-century mass-produced industrial objects of modernism, painter and sculptor Thomas Raat calls for a renewed effort to vertically elevate the masses by questioning the formal properties of avant-garde modernism and to horizontally explore the arts and crafts within our very day-to-day cultural existence. This exhibition at Onomatopee features two room-spanning installation pieces by Raat, one of which was made specifically for the exhibition.
Consisting of a grouping of 15 remodelled mass-produced “vintage” chairs on plinths, Thomas Raat’s work ‘Standards’ is filling the first room. These mass-produced chairs, not seldom spin-offs from iconic designs, were purchased at flea markets and thrift stores or found in the street. During the selection of the chairs, Raat established a specific spectrum of forms and materials. This spectrum brings in focus the outlines of an archetype or stereotype that constitutes a basic motif of this work.
The chairs have not been restored to their original state; something else has happened. Once the chairs arrived in Raat’s studio, they were stripped and sanded down to erase their original colour and any signs of wear or use. Imperfections or damage to the frames, seat, et cetera were carefully repaired. At this point it would be safe to say that the chair’s original body had been restored.
This body serves as a starting point for the chairs’ renaissance, a new serial version of the chairs that comes about by rebuilding them in an apparently repetitive colour scheme. We could see this scheme as the basic pattern for the typology. In spite of their likeness none of the colours will actually be repeated, making each chair unique. Each colour is applied in a specific nuance existing of different shades of two primary colours: magenta for the back and cyan for the seat. ‘Standards’ rebuts both the chairs’ original industrial fabrication of the mass product and their uniqueness caused by human wear, exactly because of the artificial approach.
This archetype provides a visual spectrum that serves as an inspiration for the applied variation in distinctive outward identity. Despite their slight variations in colour, texture and material, the chairs remain part of the series. The archetype is an imaginable idea, in a Platonic sense, promoting the abstract and absent idea of a formal unity, rather than a distinct, tangible reality that Aristotle would favour. It’s like the chicken-or-the-egg situation representing you and society: are we first and foremost individuals contributing to a group, or are we part of a group consisting of individuals. The semantics come down to the difference between a half-full or a half-empty glass.
Together, the unique sculptures become an installation. As an art installation based on typological variation the chairs lose the symbolism they held as commodity or mass-produced object. In this transition, the integrity of the chair (individual) and series (group) changes. Brought to life in a museological context that calls for reflection. The social and normative functioning of this type of modernistic household chairs is questioned by looking at the design of the chairs, or the formal characteristics that we can judge by sight. ‘Standards’ turns to the refinement of its variation within the series’ uniform character in particular to determine the relationship with the history of use as an appeal to our collective memory and to establish the association with mass-produced design as a democratising and socialising principle. The chairs become actors, players in our habitat. In this way, the series questions the chairs’ raison d’être in a play with shapes, situated in a game of musical chairs (ed. stoelendans in Dutch). In short: Standards.
The second room of the exhibition features the installation ‘I Beams’, made especially for this show. Five columns, nearly touching the ceiling, are playfully positioned throughout the space. If you would look at the space through a black and white filter, you could recognise the shapes as structural beams representative of the mechanics of an early 20th-century, literally rising modernity. New York’s railway and metro stations are typically built using these structures. It is here that Raat found inspiration for this work, that is iconic to the industrial manufacturing of the modern city and - as such - so relevant to our current existence.
The shape has been taken out of its original context and is now introduced into the gallery space, an environment where monolithic works of abstract art such as those of formal minimalist like Donald Judd are typical. Combining the shapes of both modernist art history and modernist industrial history, a contrast of historical modernist prophesies arises: one of a post-war, modern avant-garde in art promoting a sculpturally autonomous, immaterial effect of elevation, and that of the actual industrialisation promoting physical elevation. Produced as a column flirting with a readymade, Vertical Beams also proposes a sculptural autonomy of the object within an art context, while at the same time placing the accomplishment of physical modernity over the immaterial accomplishments of modernity. Doing so in the current post-Fordist immaterial age we live in – reflected in the city of Eindhoven, which developed from a technical industry into a technological based, knowledge-economy; we can actually spot these columns on Strijp S as well – suggests a cynical stance toward the autonomous elevation that the post-war modern avant-garde had in mind. And what is more: for the painterly appropriation of the beams, the various ways the sides of the columns have been assembled, Raat deliberately chooses the off-colours of industrialisation. The deliberate choice for Polish redwood, with its strong grain surfacing through the paint, aims to release, in the immanence of its experience, a contemplating echo of modern avant-garde.
Amidst these two installation pieces, a painterly liveliness is thriving that grants us an abstract view into a landscape, at the point where the slumbering archetype produces the group as a horizon. In variation within uniformity we find uniqueness, the same way we find diversity within social groups. These series, as a total of objects within the installation, lends shape to Raat’s game of identification and identity following a dynamic, proper logic in part hermetic and in part undefined. Positions are being challenged but no one is in danger of losing their seat.