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ART : He Will Keep You in Stitches : Jim Isermann's world encompasses decoration, design and '50s kitsch--he's into sewing right. There's something high-end about the lowest common denominator of popular design

March 20, 1994|HUNTER DROHOJOWSKA-PHILP | Hunter Drohojowska-Philp is chair, department of liberal arts and sciences, Otis College of Art and Design. and

Jim Isermann is a man who sews.

He spent the past year stitching together swatches and remnants purchased at swap meets and fabric stores, making bed-sized compositions of faded plaids and cornball florals that subtly remind one of an earlier time, a time of "My Three Sons" bedspreads and "Shindig" bell-bottoms.

These works are on view at the Richard Telles Gallery, in an exhibition that conjures immediate references to homemade quilts, specifically the AIDS quilt. Isermann's patterns are complex and rather strange; his work clearly has as its basis a sophisticated awareness of modern painting. Hence, it is doubly useful that the nearby Sue Spaid Gallery is offering a survey of the artist's unconventional work of the last decade--from his retro furniture and lamps made in '50s and '60s style to his more recent "paintings" composed of brilliantly colored stained glass or shag carpet.

To see these earlier works is essential for viewers who may have missed Isermann's debut--a 1982 installation at the Inn of Tomorrow, near Disneyland. The artist filled a motel room with his own re-creations of '50s style furniture, including a giant chartreuse console for the TV set. Aware that surrealist artists like Hans Arp and Joan Miro had influenced the biomorphic shapes of modern design, he felt he was bringing things full circle by presenting his furniture as high art.

"Fifteen years ago, when I started that work, I was aware of the high-art references. What directly influenced me was the lowest common denominator of popular design," Isermann explains.

A celebration of '50s style has since come into being everywhere from "Pee-wee's Playhouse" to Ed Debevic's diner, so it is difficult to imagine the initial impact of this work. Isermann recalls that "the old work, when it was made, sat on a fence between what was out of style and what is trendy. It had an edge you don't see today because those styles have come in and gone out again in terms of popular influences. When I show slides of that work to students today, they have no idea what it was like to look at that work when it was made."

Spaid's show is notable for another reason. With the accumulating critical interest in a younger generation of artists--Steven Criqui, Chris Finley, Carter Potter and others--who revisit the formal conventions of modern painting and sculpture in the materials and colors of popular culture, Isermann looks like a stylistic godfather. Yet Isermann appears uncomfortable with this notion. "Some of that work I'm drawn to--I'm attracted to the superficialness--but I don't understand the logic. I think there is a rigorous formal logic in everything I've done that I find that lacking in some of this other work."

He points to his own labyrinthine hand-sewn sheets hung on his studio wall and says, "The patterning is so complicated that it's almost impossible to see."

With his dimpled grin and James Dean haircut, Isermann, 38,looks a bit young to be considered anyone's fatherly role model. His Santa Monica loft, where he has lived since 1986, is filled with an eclectic mix of '50s and '60s paraphernalia, like ceramic hanging lamps from defunct coffee shops and a collection of yellow happy-face mugs. There are dozens of white mugs with red smiles as well.

"My mother collects them for me. They aren't worth much now. But they will be," he says with assurance. In the area serving as his living room hangs a drawing by Lari Pittman and several photographs by Judy Fiskin, both of whom he met while he was a graduate student at CalArts.

Isermann moved to Los Angeles in 1977 to get his master's degree but he was equally drawn by the L.A. aesthetic and its relationship to classic '50s design. "For me, there has never been a separation between decoration, design and art. I never looked at furniture or architecture or design as anything but art, it is all of equal influence. My earlier work walked some kind of line between good and bad taste. I was drawn to the populist nature of these things. Part of my interest is the planned obsolescence of design."

Although he grew up in a modern Prairie-style home in Kenosha, Wis., most of his early knowledge of modern design and pop culture came from books. At the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee, where he earned his bachelor's degree in fine art, his teachers were less than sympathetic to his paintings of '50s cars and his affection for Andy Warhol. In fact, the school forced its students to take classes in such crafts as sewing.

"I hated taking them but I learned to sew," recalls Isermann.

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