Off-World’ at the Museum of Arts and Design
Chris Schanck typically works from his studio in a former 1920s machine shop in Banglatown, a vibrant enclave of Bangladeshi immigrants just north of downtown Detroit. But the designer has found a second office, so to speak, in the main branch of the city library – a lavish 1920s Cass Gilbert building filled with travertine floors, coffered ceilings and frescoes. “The library, as you can imagine, is underutilized,” he says. “There are these vast oak tables 15 or 20 feet long that are empty. You can take over one of these conference room-sized workstations and study in complete privacy. He visits the library frequently these days, as the pandemic has given him more time to reflect on a decade of making his surreal furniture. He is one of the most successful contemporary designers to have found his voice in the gray area where art and design meet, known for a body of work made up of found materials covered in layers of shimmering paper and resin. shimmering. Two dozen of these parts—including a suspension made up of twisted mechanical parts that could come from all the The matrix and a wooden piece of furniture devoured by cotton candy pink slime – are featured in his first retrospective exhibition, “Chris Schanck: Off World,” which runs at the Museum of Art and Design through January 2023.
During the pandemic, Detroit-based designer Chris Schanck has been spending more time sketching.
Photo: Courtesy of Friedman Benda and Chris Schanck
At the library, Schanck found the idea for the exhibition’s name in Roberta Rogow’s 1991 book talk about the future, a glossary of over a thousand science fiction and fantasy terms. The phrase outside the world was first used in the 1950s and means something not native to Earth. It’s a natural fit for his weird yet fascinating work. “You could take most of the show and put it in a bad sci-fi movie and get away with it,” Schanck joked. (In fact, his work can be found in collectors’ homes and in luxury boutiques.) The phrase has taken on another meaning during the pandemic. “Tragedy hit closer to home with friends and family,” he says. “The term outside the world hit me like, It’s the last thing we all do: die and pass on to the afterlife.” Thinking outside the world in terms of death and what lies beyond, he drew more instinctively – an activity he hadn’t had as much time for before the pandemic – and reassessed his relationships with his loved ones, including his artist mother. This shift has taken his work into more personal and optimistic territory with fluid forms and figurative references that look less like the fossilized objects he has made over the past decade and more like they are alive.
Photo: Courtesy of Friedman Benda and Chris Schanck
“I called my grandparents more frequently during the pandemic and we had great conversations. They talked about growing up during the war and collecting scrap metal and the prevalence of smallpox at the time. It was this invisible enemy that no one understood but that everyone felt sensitive to. I asked them how it was, and they said it was scary and stressful, but they were also kids and they were resilient. I started reading about earlier plagues, especially the Middle Ages, and the symbolism that emerged during that time. The figurative motif on the top of Death Bench is called “Death and the Maiden” and there are countless examples of this in art history, starting in the Middle Ages. She’s still a young woman, and then in front of her is a manifestation of death. It means, ‘Remember, you will always die.’ This is not pessimistic symbolism; it is realistic and full of hope. The point is, ‘Remember to be grateful for the days you have and make the most of them.’ The layout of the oval seats relates to time. You might find a form like this at a train station or in the lobby of an old hotel. It’s more of a seat you sit in while waiting for something. I liked the idea that it was linked to a notion of time.
eye of a little god2022
Photo: Clare Gatto
“This is based on a poem by Sylvia Plath titled ‘Mirror.’ It deals with the fear of aging and not only of physically deteriorating but also of having a lack of meaning and not knowing one’s origins. The tone to me is almost like existential horror. I also think it’s extremely relevant. The woman in the poem hates the mirror and prefers moonlight and candlelight. As I read the poem, I realized there was this co-dependent relationship between the mirror and the woman that lasted a lifetime. We all have some level of vanity and we examine ourselves in the mirror every day.
“I got to a point, or maybe an age, where it became more and more important to me that the people I love know what I do. I wanted to do a collaborative piece with my mom, who is also an artist, to reconnect with a creative thing that we had when I was young and because she, in her own words, had a total misunderstanding of my work. She sculpted the form from materials that she found on the beach and in abandoned lots near her home in Florida. She sent me this explosive shape of twigs and sticks that was completely unstable but aesthetically powerful. I stabilized the shape, applied color through tinted resin and made a lamp out of it. I realized through this piece that we have similar tendencies with materials and our instincts are more aligned than I thought.
“When Mom’s Chandelier Arrived at the studio, I thought, Let’s do this again, but base it on where we are so it becomes geographically specific in a way. There’s more of a cyberpunk influence coming from me. We gathered materials from our yard and piles of junk: post-industrial bits, sticks and organic things. We attached these things to an armature by various methods of gluing, knotting and wrapping. Then we put it through a series of resin washes and an automotive tint. I wanted to do something unidentifiable. With form, the less you can relate to it, the less baggage it has. Mystery and openness lead to individual interpretation.
Photo: Clare Gatto
OSB [oriented strand board] is a material that I have been exploring for ten years. It is the least expensive type of plywood, and due to conditions in Detroit, it is an extremely ubiquitous material. It is used to close foreclosed or abandoned homes as a last ditch effort to keep out the elements – the elements being the most destructive thing behind human neglect. To get the most out of the material, it is usually painted black, which gives it more life. When I moved to Detroit after grad school to the house I still live in, it was similarly closed. I ripped out the plywood and sanded it down, and it immediately turned into this beautiful material that had so much depth. I assembled a bookcase, coffee table and chair for my house because my only job at the time was auxiliary teaching and I lived on a small salary.
“Over the past ten years, OSBs have started to disappear as investors buy up entire blocks of communities. So it was part of the local vernacular that was dying out – maybe for a good reason, but maybe not; it is too complex a question for me to settle entirely. We played with the material by applying a light wood stain. The piece is an abstraction of how things that are neglected for long periods become a hybrid of the industrial and the organic. So the simplest example is a tree growing through a chain-link fence. Separating the two would destroy the integrity of the fence or part of the tree, so they become linked. This hybridity happens a lot in my neighborhood, like vertical gardens grafted onto houses. This time of year seems apocalyptic, but in the spring and summer everything blooms and there are gourds, beans and flowers everywhere. Every family has a garden in their garden. The piece is meant to feel organic, moving and growing – a mirror of the richness and beauty that is part of the annual cycle here.