In spelling lessons as a child, our teacher gave us little tricks to remember the proper spelling of commonly mistaken words: easy to recall rules like “i” before “e” except after “c”. One that I always remember is how to differentiate desert from dessert. Which word has one “s” and which one has two. She told us: in the desert, things are sparse, just one “s”; but for dessert you get an abundance of extra delicious treats: two “s”s.
Johanna Grawunder’s work oscillates between these poles; her work is at once luxurious, rich, and bountiful, a celebration of evocative colors and materials. On the other hand, there is a dry, Spartan, even uncultivated quality as well. Components are left exposed. Industrial materials are presented in a straightforward way as if cut with scissors from bolts of fabric. She uses the term “rough luxury” often to describe her work; a catchy and succinct summary of how her utilitarian materials, when re-contextualized and framed by this artist’s eye, can become evocative paintings of light and emotion.
So what do we make of the title of her current show, “In the Desert”. First and foremost, she says, it is an homage to the genius of the California modernists operating in places like Palm Springs a generation ago. In the work of Frey, Neutra, and Lautner, among others, she has found an affinity with her experiments in Italy over the past several years using industrial materials in honest, even naïve ways. Like these architects, she has little interest in celebrating technique as an end in itself or in self-consciously expressing the cleverness of the ingredients of her creations. Instead, like the desert modernists, her work embodies a strong vision about a way of living. Space, for her, is never just a kind of neutral good taste backdrop. She proposes a more direct, even confrontational relationship with the objects that surround us.
Most of the pieces in her current show seem to levitate in the room. Suspended with cables from the ceiling, clinging precariously to walls, they allude to a state of isolation from the world around them. To enter into the presence of Grawunder’s work is to enter into a world of her own creation disconnected from specific references to the world around us. In that sense, it is probably a mistake to interpret the title of her show as comment on that other desert, the one much older than California’s where the world currently focuses its undivided attention. These works are indeed political, even ethical, statements but they are aimed much more broadly than at current events; they are aimed at what she perceives as a broader cultural desert. They demand that we engage our surroundings.