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An Artist Invented a Mythical Beast Who Lives in This New York Townhouse

February 27, 2018
Max Lakin

Artist-designer Sam Stewart's new show in a Meatpacking District apartment is overseen by a mysterious presence. Masking your intentions is big right now. Online cryptocurrency exchanges, crypto-fascists in the White House, face masks on the runway, faceless oligarchs shielded by obtusely named LLCs snapping up luxury real estate like so many bonbons. Cloaking our movements, operating in the half-shadows—there’s something about the rapidly deteriorating state of global affairs that makes clandestine living so attractive. This idea was at the heart of last fall’s Timeshare, a group show housed in Zaha Hadid’s undulating 520 West 28th Street, the architect’s first and last residential project in New York. Spread across several of the building’s high-priced apartments, the show manifested imagined human narratives, questioning why such spaces exist at all, and what they say about us. Sam Stewart’s contribution, a cat condo that incorporated a snaking tree limb and a castle turret, prefigured Cryptid, his first solo show, now on view by appointment at Fort Gansevoort in New York. In the exhibition, Stewart pushes the idea of a shapeless entity occupying luxury real estate to its extreme.

Fort Gansevoort sits in a slender townhouse in the Meatpacking District, its name a nod to its position as a redoubt in a neighborhood of clubstaurants. Earlier this winter, after the neighboring retail tenant departed, the gallery began leasing the adjacent townhouse, whose upstairs units were unoccupied but zoned for residential use (and thus required by the Department of Buildings to have things like a shower in the bathroom and a working kitchen). So Stewart gave the residence an occupant: a cryptid, some mythic Yeti or Bigfoot, a creature whose existence is unconfirmed by the scientific community but is able nonetheless to afford downtown Manhattan rents.

Stewart, who makes artful, modernist-inflected furniture that skirts the boundary between function and form, fills the narrow, otherwise anodyne space with the expected domestic conveniences of any good, affluent urbanite: a daybed, interesting chairs, a home gym. As much capitalist commentary as comic lark—at this point, is NYC real estate any less absurd than folklore about glandular humanoids?—Cryptid traffics in the vocabulary of high-production-values furniture design, and it’s not hard to imagine these pieces in the showroom of some Milanese manufacturer or the Salone del Mobile. Taken as a whole, the Cryptid apartment probes the psychological relationship between our space and the things we put in it—how what we see reflects what we can’t.

Stewart approached the Fort Gansevoort space as an extension of the Hadid site, a psychologically loaded expression of luxury real estate’s aesthetic of generalized opulence. “With the gallery it’s very clear what’s going on: it’s this residential space that’s been modified to be used commercially,” Stewart said. “What I noticed at Zaha’s building is that there’s no modification to make it a commercial space—it is a residential space, but I think of them as in-between spaces: you have to make it look convincingly nice enough for someone to buy, as an investment or living space, but it also has to leave enough room to allow for, How can my decorator or designer or architect make this into something different? So at Zaha’s, there’s this huge marble island in the kitchen, and there’s a bathroom that’s all Carrera marble, these tubs custom designed for the building—but every apartment has those same materials, those same designs. So you feel like you're in those cheap furniture showrooms, like an IKEA, but surrounded by these very luxurious interiors. It’s almost like purgatory for architecture. It’s like you’re lying to yourself that this means anything, because it really doesn’t. I have an emotional response to those types of spaces, and this space feels like a great example of that.”

Aesthetically and materially, the pieces here aren’t far off from the commissions Stewart builds for private clients, but are exaggerated just past realism’s horizon line: a burled wood table with treetrunk legs ringed in tufted, snow-white leather that serves as a combination dining table and daybed and looks uncomfortable for both is a riff on Table and Chair, Richard Artschwager’s barelyusable 1964 intervention into domestic perspective that limned the demilitarized zone between furniture and sculpture. It’s also a nod to that artist’s love of Formica; a droopy bench press and barbell set of formed sand evokes both Mary Bauermeister and Memphis design; high-backed dining chairs made from snarled maple and beech branches that Stewart charred with a propane torch and then shrouded in gray vinyl stand like spiritual totems—the Franz West equivalent of your grandmother’s efforts to protect the good upholstery.

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