When I first saw the huge sign that reads “‘Ceci n’est pas une reverie’ [This isn’t a dream]: The Architecture of Stanley Tigerman” in the Rudolph Hall Gallery, I thought, “French architecture! Tres cool!” To my dismay, as I stepped further into the gallery, I was immediately greeted by the child-like face of what I assumed was the angel Gabriel hanging from the ceiling — the type of cartoon cutout you would find on Sunday school bulletin boards and children’s Christmas cards — and a trollish cherub that could have easily been a reject character from “Schoolhouse Rock.”
Nonetheless, I continued through the exhibit, allowing myself to be educated in the odd, fantastical, kind of creepy genius of Stanley Tigerman.
The retrospective divides Tigerman’s pieces into the prominent motifs that define his work such as “Utopia,” “Death,” “Humor” and the initially confusing “Drift”. Each section of the exhibit is preceded by a hanging cloud bearing the name of the motif that characterizes the specific portion of work. On the back of each cloud is a description of the motif and an explanation of how it is expressed in the art pieces displayed. You would think that this would make everything a lot clearer. Think again. Tigerman is a complex guy with complex ideas — they’re just too complex for the rest of us to understand without a little more help than is given.
Take this blurb, for instance: “The realm of aesthetics is relativized by the ethical imperative that demands that architecture transcend any claim to autonomy and remain open to the capricious and heterogeneous impulses of human life.” Such ambiguous phrasing at times hindered my understanding of Tigerman’s projects.
But if I couldn’t completely understand what Tigerman’s work meant, so what? Art can often transcend explanation; that’s understandable. What’s most important is the visceral, visual appeal of his creations, which trumped any confusion caused by the accompanying text.
Tigerman takes simple geometric concepts like grids and abstracts them to apply them to more practical forms, like houses and museums. For instance, his models representing “Disorder,” exemplified by his design for Parklane Hotel Renovations in Kyoto, Japan, drew me in with striking color blocking and intricately interlocking grid patterns. The pieces collectively conjured up memories of the Lego houses from my childhood.
Tigerman’s designs for “Drift” emphasize curvilinear geometry and create the effect of “drifting through place and time.” The front walls of his Labadie House in Oakbrook, Illinois imitate the rushing water of the river it faces, blending fluidly with the surrounding nature.
The most appealing section was definitely “Humor.” With more naked troll angels flying rampant overhead and adorning dinner plates (made for Swid Powell), his “Architoons” series features whimsical scenes seemingly inspired by Greco-Roman mythology. There is a common theme of the separation between the layers of existence: the world of the gods and the one of mortals. I chuckled at his “Dirty Postcard” for the Venice Biennale of 1976, which featured puzzle pieces shaped like stylized male genitalia.
There were a few pieces that were less exciting, like his sketches of Bed Linens for Cannon Fieldcrest in “Utopia”. The strangely formed red, yellow and blue shapes seemed to be scattered haphazardly all over the pillows and sheets. Another set with sinister, astrological and pseudo-religious symbols more resembled a bed made for alien sacrifices than a resting place in paradise.
“Formal Generators of Structure,” a series of oil paintings, features three-dimensional shapes intricately arranged with smartly placed dead space. But it also closely resembled patterns you could find in a typical retail furniture store.
Despite linguistic obstacles that obstruct an easy comprehension of his aesthetic, Tigerman’s sketches, models, and paintings still hit their mark: each piece demonstrates even the most practical objects can be made modern with a little abstraction.