Misha Kahn Essay

Misha Kahn Essay

Misha Kahn
Fall 2013 Fellow

Sociological or anthropological, the term material culture is relevant to the work of Misha Kahn, a Fall, 2013 resident Fellow of the Creative Glass Center of America. Society as constructed through its material production — its objects — informs Kahn’s practice. Wherever you are, materials determine what will be made. Kahn thinks about materials in unpredictable ways. He avoids the obvious. Working with metals, wood, fabrics, clay, plastics, he deploys materials and processes within the contexts of strikingly different cultures and brings facets of these cultures to his work wherever he may be.

Kahn knows what it is to be a cultural outsider — a visitor looking in. He is often an interpreter and importer of new design vocabularies to his native culture (the United States). “It’s cool that everyplace you go they do things in a different way and they have different equipment. . . . You lose track of ‘there’s one right way to do things.’ You can see that there is not one way to get to the end result.” But, he adds, in an unfamiliar place “you start becoming an insider because you understand . . . but [in truth] you can never become an insider.” One consequence of Kahn’s travels and study is a casual relationship with conventions of beauty and practicality. “It’s easy to go ahead and feel you’re moving toward better and better taste. Then you begin to feel you are sort of chasing that. You have to step away from that. Taste isn’t the goal.” His eclecticism and irreverence speak to the twenty-first century.

In person, Kahn possesses the easygoing affability of someone who is skilled at bouncing from one social environment to another. Such cosmopolitans do not anticipate remaining anywhere for long but they usually leave amusing memories behind. His small studio at WheatonArts is entertaining. Walls, tables, and floor are cluttered with playful, colorful objects. Some might be called furniture, which is what Kahn is best known for making. Most would fit decoratively into a domestic setting.

Kahn seems relaxed about his work here. He’s following his inclinations and experimenting. He is using more plastic in the form of urethane resin than glass. The plastic is poured into sewn vinyl molds. The resulting puffy, Kenny Sharff-ish shapes are glossy as glass. Many are mirror surrounds. There’s an orange parody of American Chippendale. A butter yellow piece suggests a cartoon Federalist frame with a sketchy eagle on top. Hand mirrors pepper the walls. One is in the form of an ankh. One is an irregular star and one represents a hand with a mirror in the palm — a real hand mirror. Most are empty for now. To make the mirrors themselves, Kahn says, “I’ve been pouring hot glass on tin foil and the effect is perfect because it feels like a toy.” The foil reflects sooty glints of color evoking the curdled shadow of a witch who is no longer the fairest one of all.

“This is not what I was planning on making here at all,” Kahn says. “Here (at a glass-making facility) I feel like an outsider, but I’m not really making outsider work.” Of course not. Kahn attended a prestigious art school, RISD. He has studied cobblery in Israel, worked in a Vietnamese furniture factory, and with clay in Belgium. He will sell his CGCA work at Johnson Trading Gallery.

It includes a Pepto Bismol pink three legged vanity table with a matching scalloped wall mirror. To decorate the table, Kahn is working with assistants who blow perfume bottles to his specifications. He hopes to fill the bottles with an original scent, “Mall Girl.” “It will be the holistic scent of the experience of going to the mall — a bit fantasy and more disgusting; kind of comic and a little bit appalling — like the food court with the sweet food and the fried food.” Will someone want to wear it? “Probably not but you might want to own it; just because of the bottle.”

Right now he’s blending colors of urethane in his studio. “I feel very nervous about these. I like them, but I’m trying to choose sort of ‘off’ shades.” Describing a soft blue grey as “hospital chic,” he contrasts it with memories of the strident pastel Miami palette and the “bright, dusty” pigments he encountered in Morocco. “New Jersey does feel like strip mall heaven. This is like trying to embrace the American dollar store palette. . . . I’m still trying to figure out what I’m doing. Usually, it makes more sense a month from now. I follow instincts a lot. . . . It feels like its adding up to something.”

Written by Robin Rice