Everyday objects of desire

Everything including the kitchen sink appears in art today. Iain Gale traces a long domestic legacy
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The Independent Culture
When, in 1956, Richard Hamilton created his Pop icon Just what is it that makes today's homes so different, so appealing? he was asking a question that had puzzled artists since the 17th century and which continues to engage their attention today. What exactly is the appeal of the domestic interior, and, more specifically, of the individual objects that make up that environment?

Pop was the apogee of artistic object worship and Hamilton and Claes Oldenburg its high priests. Oldenburg's artistic career has been spent attempting to monumentalise the every- day, from his giant lipstick at Yale to the 45ft-high clothes peg in Philadelphia.

Now Wash Your Hands, currently showing in Bristol, features the work of nine young British artists who appear to work in the tradition both of the Pop artists and of Marcel Duchamp who, in 1917, exhibited a urinal entitled Fountain. To see these artists as a movement, however, would be a mistake. Whatever its medium - paint, clay, video tape or "readymade" - the use of the domestic object in art is as various as it is traditional.

Duchamp's infamous anti-art statement is not as fundamental a breakthrough or as subversive as it might appear. The everyday domestic object has been infiltrating art for three centuries. The story of the post-Renaissance, post-Romantic, post-Impressionist art world has been one of a progressive interest in the artist's environment. In the 20th century the elements of this environment have, like sex, and often in partnership with it, become a dominant leitmotif.

Building on a feeling rooted in the low-life imagery of the Dutch masters of the 17th century, Duchamp espouses a distinguished lavatorial tradition which looks back to Degas and Lautrec, Boucher, Hogarth and Rowlandson. By his use of the ready-made, Duchamp removes the person from within the work of art, and substitutes the viewer. The most subversive element is in effect the title. Seen like this, Duchamp's urinal becomes less significant. Although it might provide a useful rhetorical focal point, the underlying reason for the artistic pre-occupation with the everyday object lies not in this one work of art but within the far more mundane phenomenon of mass production.

Why is it that we can happily attach the label "fine art" to a still- life of a bottle by Chardin, but should encounter problems if we attempt to do the same to Stephen Skidmore's painting of detergent bottles, currently on show in Bristol? The answer is mass production. It is perfectly acceptable for the artist/ craftsman to paint a picture of a blown glass bottle, that has itself been worked by hand, but to allow the same treatment to a bottle produced in its millions in the "lesser" material of plastic undermines our late 20th-century value system, just as much as Claes Oldenburg did when, in 1961, he priced one of his inedible plaster sandwiches at $149.98. When Chardin paints his empty bottle of wine, he is preserving it, and the pleasant memory of its function. To preserve these empty containers of soap and bleach seems somehow perverse. Skidmore, in attempting to upgrade the humble plastic bottle, echoes the work of Patrick Caulfield who for 30 years has painted everyday objects in bright primary colours and in a style intended to emphasise the potentially exotic qualities of the apparently mundane. Hadrian Piggott is, in a similar sense, an inheritor of Caulfield's legacy. In the exhibition he has made a video of himself cleaning a bathroom sink with a bar of soap. In this way Piggott begins to humanise the sink and in the course of the video inserts the soap and his probing fingers into the overflow and plug hole, finally licking the soap off the sink with his tongue in a frenzy of spontaneous sexual perversion. At the end, Piggott says, he felt nauseated by his own behaviour. But he has made a statement about domestic objects all of which are made in our own image. As Jeff Koons said of his 1980s Hoover series, he "transformed" the Hoover into art by putting it in a Plexi- glas case: "It displays both male and female sexuality. It has orifices and phallic attachments."

Through the anthropomorphism, both Koons and Piggott look back to the still lifes of the bottles and jars painted by Giorgio Morandi in the 1940s, whose grouping and inter-relation suggests human society. But all these artists locate themselves in a tradition that reaches back still further to Ruskin and the Romantics. Piggott, making love to his sink, is in effect doing no more than Friedrich when he paints a ruined chapel. Both artists are using the visual language of their age to convey basic human concerns with sexual desire and impending death.

The divide between artists' dealings with the everyday lies not so much in the formal appearance of their work as their intention. Thus, what for Duchamp was an in-your-face attack on aesthetics, for the Pop artists became a means of recovering an aesthetic quality from a world driven mad by mass production and consumption. The Dadaists intended to question our ideas of ideal beauty by transposing into art what they saw as inevitably flawed objects. The Pop artists and their present day successors deny that lack of beauty and, in effect, subvert the subvertors. Today, the domestic object has become such a familiar part of art that rather than justify its presence, artists attempt to use it to deal with "issues" such as "gender". But today's artists have sentimentalised the Pop tradition. Sandy Guy's painting of a shopping trolley is unable to function in the same way as the objects transfigured by the 1960s artists. In the tradition of Morandi and the Romantics, the shopping trolley has become a visual metaphor for the human condition - solitary, empty, waiting. The 1960s myth has been debunked and all we are left with is the pathos of a timeless narrative.

n 'Now Wash Your Hands' to 7 Jan, Arnolfini, Bristol (0117 9299191); 31 March-12 May 1996 Berwick Gymnasium Gallery, Berwick-on-Tweed (01289 303243)

Home is where the art is

Artistic interest in domestic objects has a far-reaching ancestry. From the huge jug of Velazquez's Water Carrier and the 17th-century interiors of Vermeer and de Hooch, to the countless bottles and jars depicted in Dutch and French still-life painting, consumer durables have long had a place in art. Currently, artists are drawn to detergent bottles, shopping trolleys, light bulbs and lavatories. This may seem innovatory, but in fact the following three examples illustrate the not-so-original history of the everyday object in art.

The lavatory

It was in 1917, at the Armoury Show in New York, that Marcel Duchamp unveiled Fountain, a ceramic urinal signed "R Mutt", at once inventing the art of ready-made and claiming the domestic object as a tool of artistic subversion. Tom Wesselmann's 1963 series Bathtub Collages, in which he used the plastic lid and cistern of a lavatory, owed something to Duchamp, yet was also in the mainstream intimiste tradition of Bonnard. For Wesselmann, the use of real objects serves to emphasise the essentially voyeuristic aspect of the genre. Una Rose Smith, in 1995, had used small red vinyl arrows to dissect a lavatory from the cistern to the base of the bowl. Emphasising an aspect upon which Duchamp and Wesselmann had only touched, Smith evinces a concern with gender. On the closed lid she has placed a sign for a ladies public lavatory. She says: "Duchamp's urinal had a profound effect on me, but my purpose in using found objects is different. I value the object as part of my aesthetic language."

The light bulb

It was Joseph Wright of Derby who, in his paintings of the 1760s, first brought to art an interest in the specifically scientific study of sources of artificial light. In the 20th century, through the shorthand of animated cartoons, the light bulb has come to signify inspiration - literally, a bright idea. Lisa Milroy, talking about her painting of light bulbs made in 1989, spoke of her interest in them for what they suggest: "Associations of conducting energy, of communities, of light itself." In the same year, Michael Craig-Martin painted a single light bulb, explaining that it was intended to embody the "idea" of the light bulb and emphasise our conception that such everyday objects have not been designed at all: they just "are". In Dermot O'Brien's Luminescence III, included in the Bristol show, it is possible to discern similarities with both Craig-Martin and Wright. O'Brien has expressed interest in the fact that light bulbs are organic shapes emitting artificial light. He describes his work as "a little epiphany, or a moment of joy".

The loaf of bread

With its Christian symbolism, bread has always been a natural subject for a still-life painter. In modern art, it was featured notably by Salvador Dali in his 1926 painting Basket of Bread in which he uses a heavily shadowed style which presages his later Surrealist fantasies. The theme was taken up by Claes Oldenburg in the 1960s with a series of memorable Pop art works. Oldenburg's gigantic inflatable sandwiches and rolls were intended to humanise familiar everyday objects through the pathos of their mouth- watering unattainability. In Bristol, in similar vein, Harriet Jackman has "dressed" unbaked bread in pairs of women's knickers and then baked it. The results, exhibited in a wire basket, are entitled Body (Version 3). Jackman uses the domestic process of baking to call to mind modern women's obsessions with obesity and the obligation to be a "perfect housewife". "My work," she says, "is engaged in a very straight forward way with those elements of survival - clothes, food - which underpin civilisation and culture."