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Reviews / March 19, 2009

David Mabb: William Morris and Constructivism Meet the Marketplace

David Mabb Two Squares (detail of installation) 2008

“Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful” is perhaps the most famous quote attributed to the 19th-century Arts and Crafts designer William Morris (1834–1896). This moralizing statement is also the title of David Mabb’s exhibition at Leo Kamen Gallery.

For close to a decade, London-based Mabb has been doing mash-ups of Morris, combining his designs with the utopian projects of Russian Constructivists such as Malevich, Rodchenko and Lissitzky. Ultimately, the results make it impossible to decide where Mabb’s devotion lies—toward decoration or abstraction—as these two utopian moments in art history grapple with each other in his work and new associations freely emerge.

The exhibition consists of two works: The Morris Kitsch Archive and Two Squares. The Morris Kitsch Archive is a collection of 530 photographic images gleaned from various sources, all featuring domestic products imprinted with Morris’s designs. Mass-produced quotidian items such as tea towels, rubber boots, pocket tissues, stationery, underwear and even an “I love Morris” baby bib are among the hundreds of items which must surely be felt as a slap to the 19th-century designer’s well-known preference for the handworked over industrial production. Morris was the founder of the Socialist League and the standard-bearer of Labourism; he maintained a fierce hatred of capitalism and would be rolling in his grave if he knew what his designs have become today.

Mabb’s presentation of the archives has an unmistakable referent: the marketplace. Viewing the installation is less like gallery-going and more like window-shopping. In fact, some viewers were overheard at the opening asking Mabb where they could buy the work, and Mabb, thinking they were interested in purchasing the installation, directed them to his dealer. However, what they really wanted to know was where they could buy a tea cozy in Morris’s Honeysuckle pattern. This just proves that no matter how cloying and middle-class his designs have become, Morris is still able to stir consumer desire a century after his death. Commercialism and economic exploitation are rampant, rendering Morris’s notions of beauty, inequality and exploitation suspect. In a world dominated by the international flow of information and mass reproduction, one in which images are turned into objects and objects into images and in which commercialism and economic exploitation are dominant, Mabb’s Morris Kitsch Archive offers no easy victory for Morris.

Facing this archive is another body of Mabb’s work: 14 paintings in which Morris’s wallpaper patterns collide with images appropriated from El Lissitzky’s 1922 children’s book Of Two Squares. This illustrated story by one of the pioneers of Russian Constructivism is a tale about two squares—one red, the other black—that transform the world. Of Two Squares tells the story of the squares’ struggles and in this capacity is a powerful expression of revolutionary communism. Lissitzky’s book marked the beginning of a new kind of graphic art and was one of the most important publications of the avant-garde in terms of typography and graphic design.

Here Mabb sets into motion a dialectical dance: Morris’s assertive patterning breaks through Lissitzky’s intense abstraction and the book’s Cyrillic script (including a dedication: To all, to all the children). Morris’s repeated patterning plays havoc with the hopeful, transcendental claims of modernist abstraction, effectively holding it hostage. We are not sure which style will come out the winner in the end. Do we feel sorry for Lissitzky because we don’t see his images everywhere and on everything? What does this say about the history of art? Which artist is the true hero of the utopian movements?

It would be safe to say that there are no victors here. The installations, in fact, speak to two different forms of defeated utopian aspiration. On the one hand, Two Squares reminds us of a nostalgia for a future that never transpired; Mabb’s other work shows us the collapse of a utopian project in the face of capitalist mass consumption. In occupying this in-between position, David Mabb opens up possibilities for the medium of painting, proving that it is a sphere in which questions concerning art and politics can—and need to—be asked. (80 Spadina Ave, Toronto ON)