Not too long ago, while driving around campus, artist, designer, sculptor Peter Shire noticed the Indian Mounds, which prompted him to flashback to that messy Los Angeles office.
The office was situated beneath the marquee of a movie theater, an old fashioned theater like, say, the Saenger in New Orleans.
They were called movie palaces when constructed in the 1920s and ’30s. Everyone could afford to go there, catch a movie or maybe even hear a jazz orchestra and feel, in the meantime, they were part of high society.
Many of these palaces were constructed to include rental space for offices. What business wouldn’t benefit from window shoppers in line waiting to buy a ticket to King Kong?
Well, Shire wasn’t in line to see any version of King Kong. Or maybe he was; he doesn’t say.
He just remembers peering into one of the shop windows while standing in line outside the old Los Angeles movie palace and discovering a disheveled office. Papers, notebooks and files were scattered everywhere.
And proudly displayed on a desk was the sign, “A neat desk is the sign of a troubled mind.”
“It said so much about the person who runs that office,” Shire said. “It was like looking through a portal at who this person was. And I thought about that portal for the Indian mounds.”
He’s thinking about the Indian mounds and what exactly is inside them. Yes, he’s been informed that they were used for ceremonial purposes, not burial. And he understands that excavations have been conducted through the years.
But aren’t they still portals in the same sense as the display window revealing the messy office in Los Angeles? Somehow, there’s still a story here to be discovered about someone.
“It gave me the idea to construct some Indian mounds outside of Foster Hall,” Shire said. “I would build them as boxes. I’ve talked to the art department, and I think it’s the project I’d like to work on while I’m there.”
Shire’s talking about LSU, where he’ll be the 2013 Nadine Carter Russell Endowed Chair. The position is a rotating residency within the LSU College of Art + Design, this time hosted by the Department of Interior Design.
The LSU School of Art and the LSU Department of Interior Design also are hosting the largest-ever body of Shire’s work, as the LSU Museum of Art, the LSU School of Art’s Alfred C. Glassell Jr. Gallery and the LSU Student Union Art Gallery combine to show a retrospective of his career.
The museum will open Practically Absurd: Art & Design by Peter Shire on Thursday, Jan. 31. This is the biggest show of the three and will feature Shire’s work from the time he was with the Memphis group.
More on this group later.
“Our show features more of his decorative art, which is all functional,” said Natalie Mault, the museum’s curator.
The Glassell Gallery’s show, Serious Fun: Works by Peter Shire, also opens on Jan. 31 and will include several sculptures from Shire’s Hokkaido series. The two shows will open with a joint reception from 5:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. Jan. 31.
The museum’s show will run through Sunday, April 14, while the Glassell Gallery’s show closes on Sunday, March 24.
Finally, the union art gallery’s show, Peter Shire: A World of Geometrics, will open Sunday, Feb. 3, and run through Sunday, Feb. 24. This exhibit will feature Shire’s sculptural and ceramic works.
And preceding the opening reception, Shire will deliver a lecture at 5:25 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 30, in Room 103 of the LSU Design Building.
“I’ll be there in time for Mardi Gras,” Shire said. “They wanted to make sure I was there for that.”
He laughed. And it was genuine.
There’s no pretense here. Some of Shire’s work is considered iconic in the art world, especially the “Bel Air Chair,” which will be on exhibit in the LSU Museum of Art’s show.
But Shire doesn’t much talk about that. Yes, he created that piece, but he’s much more excited about future prospects. Well, make that future adventures.
Because coming to Baton Rouge is a true adventure, a place where Shire can eat Louisiana food at homegrown, local restaurants; where he can walk in the city where Huey Long instituted his populist agenda; where he can catch Mardi Gras beads; and where he can teach art students by building box versions of Indian mounds.
Make that Shire’s version of Indian mounds.
“I’m thinking about building them with sliding glass doors where you can look in and see what’s inside,” Shire said. “The glass door will be a portal, and the point is to see what’s in there. And maybe we can get the landscape architecture students involved. Maybe they could design the outside during their classes.”
That is, it’s what will be in there if Shire chooses the mounds as the project on which to work with LSU’s art students.
“I talked to some people in the art department about it,” he said.
He even suggested a few LSU-related pieces that could be included in the mounds, but the art department officials automatically nixed some of those suggestions.
“Oh well,” Shire said.
A shrug would have been a natural reflex here, but Shire couldn’t be seen at this moment. He spoke on the telephone from the Echo Park Pottery Studios in Los Angeles, named for the city’s district where he was born and still lives.
Shire is a graduate of the Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles and was a member of the aforementioned Memphis Group, an Italian design and architecture group that designed Post Modern furniture, fabrics, ceramics, glass and metal objects from 1981 to 1987.
Shire revolutionized the design of household objects, striving to confront issues of modernity while examining the practical needs of society. Take, the “Bel Air Chair,” for instance.
“The ‘Bel Air Chair’ became one of the iconic symbols of this group,” Mault said.
She walked through the museum’s main galleries during the exhibit’s installation. Platforms have been constructed along the walls to display Shire’s work.
It’s what Shire, in jest, would call, “furniture sculpture.”
“That’s as opposed to sculpture sculpture,” he’ll say later. “I’ve always found it funny when people say that. Is this furniture sculpture or sculpture sculpture? Art is art.”
But he’s right. People tend to categorize artwork, and some visitors surely will be talking about Shire’s furniture sculpture while at the LSU Museum of Art. And they’ll wonder what it would be like to sit in the “Bel Air Chair.”
How to describe it? A collection of brightly colored, geometric shapes fitted together to form a chair? Maybe. But this is more than that. It’s a real chair, big and roomy.
Thoughts of curling up in the cushioned seat immediately come to mind.
“Peter Shire asked, ‘What is a chair?’” Mault said. “It was heavily influenced by Los Angeles culture. The bottom of the chair was inspired by a beach ball, and the back is reminiscent of a shark fin or beach wave. And the title is taken from the five-star luxury hotel in Beverly Hills. He rethinks the designs. For the past 30 years, he has created furniture bursting with unconventional funkiness and vessels with eccentric personalities. His works are one-of-a-kind in terms of style and production.”
The “Bel Air Chair” was duplicated in a limited edition, much like a limited edition print.
“But it wasn’t massed produced,” Mault said. “Each work is as unique and quirky as the artist himself. They begin as a series of conceptual sketches, some of which will be on display in the exhibit. These sketches lead to a final rendering. After materials are purchased, cut and welded, the item is finished with an application of special automotive-style paint and assembled with unique hardware, making each piece of furniture unique.”
Along with the “Bel Air Chair,” the LSU Museum of Art’s exhibit will including three other iconic works from Shire’s time with the Memphis group, including the 1983 “Anchorage” teapot, the 1981 “Obelisk” armoire and the 1985 “Cahuenga” lamp.
There also will be six quirky chairs; four geometrical, ceramic teapots and three giant teapots; two whimsical lamps and tables; three decorative laminate tables and bookcases; one flamboyant rug; two unique purses; one hanging, steel cherub; a dozen artist sketches; and a selection of unusual silverware, produced from 1980 to 2009.
Shire has had more than 100 solo exhibitions nationally, and he has completed more than 25 public art works. His work can be found in more than 35 museums worldwide, including the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Smithsonian, the Victoria & Albert Museum and the Israel Museum.
But none of these displays has been as big as LSU’s.
“I’ve had a show that had 5,000 feet of my work, but this one is 6,000 feet,” Shire said. “I’m one of those people who drink champagne on a beer budget. We just put everything in one truck and sent it to Louisiana.”
He was talking about a 53-foot-long moving truck.
“Have you ever been in one?” Shire asked. “It’s like walking into Aladdin’s lamp.”
Another laugh. It seems almost everything has a way of fascinating Shire, but isn’t that a wondrous way to live life? Especially for an artist who sees possibilities in the ordinary.
Because what could be more ordinary than a messy office? Shire could probably find a few just by peeking into windows on LSU’s campus.
But the thought of that office in the movie palace building stays with him, especially the sign on the desk. It was humorous, and it matched his playful attitudes toward life. And his attitude translates into his bold, colorful chairs, tables and other functional household constructions.
Who knows? Shire’s future work may reflect some Louisiana influences. It’s possible.
It won’t be his first time in the state; Shire has visited New Orleans a number of times, making sure to eat at K-Paul’s restaurant. But he will be spending 35 days on this, his first visit to Baton Rouge, working with students, participating in museum and gallery programs and taking in as much of the city and its surrounding area as possible.
“I’m very interested in Louisiana mythology,” he said. “I’m wildly in love with Mardi Gras, and I’m very interested in all things cuisine. And Huey Long fascinates me.”
Shire knew of Long before coming to Baton Rouge, and when he asked his hosts to bring him to the highest point in the city, he found himself looking down on Long’s grave from atop the Louisiana State Capitol.
“And I saw the bullet holes inside the Capitol where he was shot,” Shire said. “It’s interesting how he billed himself as a populist in an interesting time in American history, where people were afraid of progressive politics. But when you bill yourself as a populist, you can say you’re not a communist.”
So, Shire has taken a closer look at this notion of populism and discovered, in an artist’s way, he’s a populist.
“I’m a populist, because I’m not exclusive in what I design,” Shire said. “Everyone uses teapots. Everyone uses tables and chairs.”
His work is something everyone can understand. Better yet, it’s something everyone can enjoy.
This just may be the window that serves as the portal as to what’s happening within Shire. Or one of many windows. Because his work, like the sign on the messy office desk, really says it all.
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