Design into Art

By Constance Mallinson

The definitive look of clean, elegant surfaces, polished aluminum, bright prismatic colored cubes sporting simple graphic shapes, and orderly gridded arrangements might initially brand Moshe Elimelechs painted wall sculptures as Neo-Modernist. Indeed formally and aesthetically they recall high Modernists such as Victor Vassarely or Yaacov Agam – Elimelech actually worked as an assistant for Agam from 1969 to 1970 before beginning his long graphic design career. Influenced by the changing perspectives and retinal effects typical of these 'op artists', Elimelech houses his unattached cubes within grids of open black velvet boxes with the intention of encouraging the viewer to endlessly recompose them in ways that seem mathematically infinite: wavy hard edge lines shimmy vertically and horizontally; subtle color gradations are punctuated with stark black and white geometry; architectural forms constantly arise and fall; a Malevichian tilted black square may quickly morph into a picture resembling a stark urban landscape photograph. Such constantly fluctuating references and patterns actually break down and challenge pictorial hierarchies and situate his practice within Postmodern discourse and debates concerning the nature and function of the artist, and the role and legacy of design in contemporary art.

Throughout the Modernist era the relationship between high art and design was frequently contested, design being most closely identified with consumer products and architecture, and fine art resolutely opposing the values of mainstream culture. In the early twentieth century, the distinctions became less important as the Bauhaus, the Russian Constructivists even the Bloomsbury group sought to undo what Walter Gropius termed the arrogant barrier between craftsman, artists, and designers to create a total work of art that was a synthesis of all arts. As the postwar avant-garde resumed its goals of challenging status quo values, the arrogant barrier between design and fine art was reinstated, perhaps out of necessity to preserve arts critical capabilities and a sense of individualism in a Cold War conformist atmosphere. Leading critics like Clement Greenberg assured art viewers that the bold Color Field paintings he so championed in the early 1960s were not just snappy wall graphics but strict manifestations of the unique pure properties of painting and a logical outcome of paintings historical progression to define its flatness. Minimalist sculptors such as Sol Lewitt made liberal use of architectural and design elements but distinguished their efforts from mere design by an emphasis on precise definitions and qualities of sculpture. Clearly Elimelech's crisply painted modules are indebted to that periods post-painterly abstraction and the Minimalistic systems approach to sculpture.

By the late 1960s, such cool formal investigations began to be undermined by a poststructural, deconstructionist dialogues that questioned the fixity of language and the underlying meanings and assumptions of texts. In art the emergence of multiple influences, narratives, and formerly suppressed voices allowed for a sense of playfulness with form, ideas, content, and sources from kitsch to exotic cultures, politics to design. Elimelech's interactive game-like constructions destabilize high Modernist values such as progress, originality, and the work of art as a permanent monument to genius. Elimelech's viewer-collaborative artworks are never completed but are instead fields of perpetual change . They elicit metaphors for a human existence full of pleasure, surprise, and the constant possibility of new meanings, with beautiful design the means to that engagement.

 

 

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