Artist Christopher K. Ho's work bears witness to a world we don't yet know

Future Artifacts

By Scott Indrisek

Named for Picasso’s iconic 1907 work, Christopher K. Ho’s delectable Demoiselles d'Avignon series—part sculpture, part functional furniture—was inspired by a sly sense of artistic tradition. “I approached these pieces as an art-historical problem,” the New York-based artist explains. “Picasso went to the Trocadéro ethnographic museum and encountered African masks [which inspired his painting]. I was trying to think of what a similar encounter might be—someone in the future, encountering Western abstraction.”

With this hypothetical artist-designer in mind, Ho chose to sample, rework, and reinterpret the American and European modernist tradition to create a series of cerebral “coffee tables” that, while technically functional, are more about balancing notions of use and history. “It's thinking about abstraction as the African mask: not as an initiator of a tradition, but as the Other that inspires a future Picasso,” he says. The goal was to envision a future in which “the most watered-down version of abstraction has become fully assimilated into domestic design”—a point at which the once unsettling provocations of an avant garde are perverted into ornamentation and luxury.

According to Ho, “Each artwork of mine is a provisional and an emphatic response to the field of contemporary art: provisional because that field is ever changing; and emphatic because at every moment, there exist overlooked and undervalued aesthetic, social, and ideological positions that compel highlighting. My work is demanding to make and sometimes difficult to view, insofar as it asks to be contextualized broadly, in the field of art as well as in those of sociology, economics, and history. I embrace these demands and this difficulty.”

The nine mixed-media works in Demoiselles d'Avignon—mingling wood, glass, colored paper, Tibetan rock salt, and 3D-printed ceramics—are the closest Ho has come to the design sphere. The artist, who also teaches in the painting department at the Rhode Island School of Design, has a restlessly eclectic practice encompassing conceptual painting, sculpture, and photography. A 2013 show at Forever & Today, Inc. in New York was titled Privileged White People; it featured large portraits of Bill Clinton and James Van Der Beek, and included a teleplay that Ho drafted for a hypothetical, Dawson's Creek-inspired show called Trout College. 2010’s Regional Painting exhibition at Winkleman Gallery (also in NYC), meanwhile, featured works supposedly composed by both Ho and a fictitious character called Hirsch E.P. Rothko (an anagram of the artist’s name) during a very real year that Ho spent holed up painting in a mountain cabin covered in license plates in Telluride, Colorado. (The yearlong stint was referred to as a performance art piece as well: 2010’s License Plate Shed.) In short, Ho is not a straightforward artist dabbling in the furniture business—which is not to say he'd be unhappy if these works ended up being used as such in the home. Just be careful—as he notes, almost all of the “tables” have uneven surfaces. “I wanted that slight wonkiness to be there,” he says. “But I am open to them being used as coffee tables or side tables. Having a slightly off-kilter tabletop is fascinating for liquid drinks. . .”

Many of the works contain traces of the brainstorming process behind them. The genesis for each design, Ho says, was a simple one-by-one-inch Sharpie sketch on newsprint. These were enlarged, then laser-cut into plastic stencils that were used to create watermarked designs on large sheets of 80% cotton, 20% abaca paper. The papers were later cut up and pressed between each table's glass and mirror layers.

The paper is joined by shapes in Color-Aid—a screen-printed, colored paper originally developed in the ’40s as a backdrop for photographers—which was chosen by Ho for its resonance with the pedagogical methods of Josef Albers. In the work titled Black Square, Ho explains, “A single piece of Color-Aid YG-T1—an apple green—is seen against Rw-Hue and R-Hue (two different reds); on a white and black background; and through a 3/8-inch bronze glass, as well as a combination of 3/8-inch bronze and ¼ inch grey glass. That apple green changes radically depending on adjacencies and transparencies—a lesson that Albers taught long ago, using Color-Aid as his tool.” Of these nine pieces, Shard is the most provisional-seeming of the group; overlapping slabs of clear, grey, and bronze glass rest on two rectangular logs of bleached white oak. “I was cutting off corners of Color-Aid to use as swatches for other pieces,” Ho says, discussing the latter work. “I would throw used corners onto a table, and one day I decided I liked how they fell. Thus, the Color-Aid in Shard is arranged by chance, whereas its arrangement in the other pieces is well-thought-out and composed.”

Ho employed a range of other media to generate various textural and compositional effects—black mirror, CNC-milled foam, ebony. Heart, which features a base of carved, pink-hued Tibetan rock salt, incorporates five distinct types of 22k and 23k gold-leafing; the elegance of those materials is contrasted by a heart-shaped hunk of black, 3D-printed ceramic that rests on the work's antique-glass top. Pastiche has a tabletop of ornately cast Morisco glass. All of the tables are a combination of low- and high-tech, and Ho liasoned with a variety of collaborators to achieve certain components: Manhattan's Dieu Donné assisted with the paper that was watermarked with the original sketches; Parrish Production, in Kentucky, facilitated CNC-milled foam for Half Moon and a wooden portion of Teardrop; Boston's Figulo handled the 3D-ceramic printing; and all of the glass came from NY’s Rosen’s Paramount Glass, a low-key institution that’s been around since the ’20s.

So are these design pieces, or artworks, or both? That slim distinction is out of Ho's hands. Today’s artists “have to consciously allow our work to be misused, or used in multiple ways—more than we can even imagine,” he says. “To be sure, these pieces can be separated and used as coffee tables. And I bet there are ten other uses that I’m not even thinking about.”

“I wanted the grouping to feel like a meeting of a group of people,” Ho says, “for each piece to have its own characteristics, to be a kind of conference between nine entities.” But unlike Picasso's abstract gathering of women, Ho’s sculptural furniture is a bit less anchored in the real world. “I thought of the circle of ‘tables’ as akin to a conclave of aliens,” he says, “or a council of alien leaders.”

While Ho is known for a decidedly eclectic output and a wandering curiosity, he plans to revisit this series for a solo exhibition at Present Company in the spring of 2016—using that occasion to further investigate his own status as a Chinese-American artist who spends ample time in both countries. “I’m trying to envision what the experience would be for a Chinese person in the future, stumbling across abstraction at the Museum of Modern Art,” he says. “Would it be akin to Picasso looking at those African masks? This notion of colonial power relationships was embedded in the project from the start—but I want to make it more explicit.” But despite this heady genesis, Ho’s tables succeed on a more basic level as purely beautiful design objects: poised, carefully considered, the sensuous mixed-media result of the “material investigation” that the artist embarked upon. Their meaning, ultimately, is as unpredictable and precarious as their playfully uneven surfaces.

  • Text by

    • Scott Indrisek

      Scott Indrisek

      Scott is the executive editor of Modern Painters and the founder of Brant Watch. He lives in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, with two erudite cats.