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Michael Pfleghaar: Design masquerading as something else

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An interview with artist Michael Pfleghaar about his current exhibit "Reinforcing Objecthood," showing at the GRAM until April 22nd.
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Pfleghaar on view at the GRAM February 10-April 22

Michael Pfleghaar: Reinforcing Objecthood is part of the Grand Rapid Art Museum's Michigan Artists Series. This body of work comes at a pivotal time in the artist's 20+ career as he breaks away from his previous modes of representation. Adding a contextual dynamism, Pfleghaar selected various design objects from the museum’s collection that are displayed in the adjacent gallery. The work will be on view until April 22.

"Lean To One"

"Lean To One" /Michael Pfleghaar

The show titled "Michael Pfleghaar: Reinforcing Objecthood" opened at the Grand Rapids Art Museum earlier this month, kicking off the museum's Michigan Artist Series. In this body of work, Michael Pfleghaar pays homage to the mid-century design movement that brought us Bakelite, hairpin table legs, stackable chairs, and the warm luster of teak. A palpable love affair with sexy tapered angles and body-hugging fiberglass gives way to an artist’s inability to leave well enough alone as Pfleghaar dissects and fractures these streamlined forms to create something far from retro. The resulting new objects are a playful and confident assertion of an artist who has found sure footing between two worlds.

I sat down with the artist to learn how he arrived at this current body of work. He shares his a bit about his trajectory, inspiration and hopes for the creative scene in Michigan.

Tori Pelz: You say you’re interested in the dual role of artist/designer. What design problems did you want these works to solve?

Michael Pfleghaar: I did see my role as a designer of a new object. I would approach the work how a designer would in that I'm solving a visual problem. Abstraction forces you to deal with pure structure. So I like that challenge. It kind of just helps reinforce that whole creative process of creating something un-nameable.

TP: What about the mid-century aesthetic inspires you?

MP: The formal quality is definitely a big influence…the clean lines... I like design masquerading as something else. Whether it’s functional or not is kind of secondar. Like the [Toyohisa] tools, they don’t look terribly functional but more like neat artifacts from a period.  So as an artist, I’m mainly concerned with them functioning visually.

TP: You start with these mid-century forms that are already stripped down. Since your process involves reduction and deletion, can you imagine yourself starting with a more embellished, ornate object and abstracting from there? Or is that purity of form an essential starting point?

MP: That’s interesting because I just kind of started experimenting with taking a more decorated source and deconstructing it, and I expect it to work similarly. I did this project after being in Vienna, where the forms are much more ornate, Baroque.  So, I expect [my process] to work similarly. It’s an interesting challenge.

TP: What led you to abstraction?

MP: So far what I’d done was pretty straight-forward, kind of a depiction of the space or object. Maybe what lead me to abstraction was learning the design and visuals of these objects so well from articulating them in so many different representational works.

[Art students who feel hindered by drawing still lifes, take note!]

I felt like I had exhausted that and could take it further by breaking it down. It hit me one day that there’s not really much to it [when] your mind attaches meaning to things it sees. It realizes it’s a lamp. Whereas, if you take that recognizable element out of it, it becomes something much deeper and doesn’t resolve itself. The work now is much more interesting than my representational work.

TP: Do you always start with the singular object?

MP: More or less. I start with an object where one part of the design sort of starts the motif that’s interesting to me and starts the idea. Like [the piece] “Aha” references this plastic stool that’s been dismantled and then depicted in many different ways. “Shell,” the same. Those are probably the two most literal… [They are] using the shapes and shadows that are normally there and repositioning.

TP: You incorporate actual lighting and ready-made elements into "Lean To One" and"Red Light Construct." And given that Jessica Stockholder has been an influence, do you see your work as growing more spatially, incorporating a larger environment?

MP: I see the door being opened for that option. Painting for me is no longer using paint on a canvas. I now have so much wider vocabulary… But I do like the idea that they still touch the wall. Because it plays with the whole painting [as] object. These will just grow from here. I'm kind of just scratching the surface.

TP: I don’t want to make something more than it is, but it seems like there’s a certain tension between the human figure’s absence and a sort of disembodiment. The works are all a bodily scale, and you draw from domestic references like chairs whose forms cradle the human body. Some of the titles like “Rib” and “Arm” are interchangeable terms for the body or furniture.

MP: I like that analogy. I don’t think I really intentionally did anything like that. The titling was just a little tease as to maybe what the inspiration was: a starting point for the viewer. But I’ve always seen chairs being a very human element. Most of my work has no figures. So maybe that’s an issue that is there but I just haven’t acknowledged it or articulated it. The way you put it does make sense. And that’s what the wonderful thing about abstraction is. It can bring those insights to the work.

TP:  In the twenty or so years that you’ve carved out your career here, what would you say the regions offers and also fails to provide for its artists?

MP: On the [one] hand, if you do something good here, it’s easy to get attention. I’m restless now. It’s like I’ve done this. I really wanted to have this exhibition here, since it shows how I’ve kind of built my career here. I think having a conversation or a discourse about art… doesn’t exist here.  I think that’s an important component for growth in this area. Even with ArtPrize, there’s so much discussion but [it's praise] about the format or artists bitching about it…

TP: What do you think the best format for this kind of growth is?

MP: In [my] whole graduate school experience, there was such a heavy component on theory. I think that’s so important to bring that here, especially if we’re going to be getting national attention…. Grad school also reminded me that it’s hard to function in a vacuum without other artists. I always rejected that [necessity], but I see that differently now.

Additional work by the artist can be found on his website.

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