Volume 19 • Issue 3 | May 2 - 8, 2006

Photo by Guillaume Rouchon

Roland Gebhardt, below, and the surreal masks he created for his birthday gathering.

For one Tribeca artist, playtime is a way of life – and art

By Neal Schindler

After taking the elevator up to Tribeca artist Roland Gebhardt’s sunshiny loft space, I suddenly got the urge to play. Gebhardt has a warm German accent, gray hair, and an avuncular gentleness about him, and a quick look around his studio only added to my impression that he was some kind of art-world Santa. And that’s not entirely untrue. When his son Morgan was young, the artist made him a rocking horse that owed more to Picasso than Black Beauty — a homely, Cubist-looking beast that’s all right angles (except for the bottom, of course) and is sold IKEA-style: unfinished, unpainted, and not yet constructed. One of Gebhardt’s signature pieces, the horse has since been licensed (to Cassadaga Designs, Inc.) and is available at various retail stores, but its odd abstraction remains jarring to the unwary eye. Yet the artist’s intent was never to shock or bewilder; he merely wanted his young son to be able to bring to the horse whatever associations he liked — put another way, Gebhardt wanted him to use his imagination.

Provoking imaginative — and, more specifically, conceptual — thought about the world has been Gebhardt’s stock in trade since his own childhood. Born in 1939 in Paramaribo, Suriname, he began developing as an artist in Germany, where his family moved in 1949. He worked as an apprentice at a stained-glass firm at the age of 16, then enrolled at the Kunstgewerbeschule in Zurich, Switzerland, an art school that gave him the grounding he’d need to study painting a few years later at the Hamburg Art Academy. Yet Gebhardt felt like an outcast in Europe due to his non-native status, so in 1965 he moved to New York —what he calls “the bellybutton of the world” — and ultimately settled in Tribeca, where he still maintains his spacious, airy Vestry Street studio. Though he appears to put a great deal of time into his art, Gebhardt also takes on a wide variety of design projects, like an 80-foot monument for Chicago’s sprawling United Parcel Service headquarters.

“I always keep my visual vocabulary very limited, very spartan,” Gebhardt says. And while calling him a minimalist isn’t completely inaccurate, it isn’t quite right, either. At the artist’s Web site, www.rolandgebhardtsculpture.com, he explains his mission in broad terms: “every piece explores a principle, or something that appeals to basic modes of understanding.” Pieces of Eight, a sort of parlor game Gebhardt designed in the ’70s (he calls it “participatory sculpture”), consists of eight interlocking metal blocks, in four sets of two, that can be combined in a virtually endless number of ways. Not only does Pieces of Eight subvert the usual expectation surrounding parlor games (namely that they’re solvable), it also collides the notion of play with that of serious art. Gebhardt’s use of the word “sculpture” to describe a toy that’s sold at Neiman Marcus might seem pretentious, but perhaps what’s too high-flown is the antiquated notion that anything we can interact with can’t possibly be art. It makes you think, anyway, which is Gebhardt’s goal.

Happily, Gebhardt’s sense of fun isn’t restricted to solitary pastimes. On September 24, 2005, which happened to be his birthday, the artist staged a “Mask Gathering” in a friend’s soon-to-be-vacated brownstone. He designed around 80 geometric masks for the guests, while various collaborators handled the lighting and photography, turning the event into a candy-colored, Surrealist soiree. (More images are on display at the site.) The masks, made of foam core and simple sun visors, were divided into “different families, or tribes,” Gebhardt says. There were rectangles and squares and triangles, but each mask bore a distinctive pattern made of punched-out squares and other shapes. (Picture the pixellated attackers from “Space Invaders” and you’ll get the general idea.) Annoying aesthetic hipsterism or good, clean arty fun? The photos suggest the latter. There’s something lovably nerdy and droll about substituting weird geometric entities for the usual disguises at a masquerade, and the way the lines of the masks interact with the rooms’ stately white surfaces, lit up pink and blue and green, makes a formidable case for impermanent, interactive art —art that isn’t afraid to have a good time.

The masks’ basic conceit is part of an aesthetic thread Gebhardt has been playing with for many years. In 1982, he constructed a one-day exhibition at the Kunstmuseum in Düsseldorf, Germany, that included a shopping cart’s worth of fruits and vegetables — zucchini, eggplant, apples, beets, sweet potatoes, cabbages — laid out in a line and linked by one long incision, which Gebhardt calls a “linear void.” The notion of connecting disparate objects by removing something from all of them is intriguing, and Gebhardt admits that his “linear void” pieces, including a line of four incised boulders, might be viewed as studies in shadow. Yet the artist doesn’t seem to have an absolute concept in mind. His wish, it appears, is simply to take people outside their usual relationship to commonplace things — as with the rocking horse, what you make of his abstraction is up to you.

Gebhardt says the process behind the Düsseldorf exhibit was arduous: He had to buy the produce at the market, take it to a shop, put a two-inch-wide incision in each piece with a four-sided chisel, and set the whole thing up before 10 a.m. Yet its otherworldly effect, also viewable at the site, makes Gebhardt’s unusual effort seem worthwhile. Once you’ve seen the work, you may find yourself stalled in the produce aisle at the grocery store, musing on the interconnectedness of all fruits and vegetables. And Gebhardt wouldn’t have it any other way.


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