Almost Ergonomic
David Bodhi Boylan, Alex Chitty, Laura Hart Newlon & Kate O'Neill, Jeff Prokash
Studio 424
August 23 - 25, 2014

[Hyperallergic Best of 2014]

Almost Ergonomic
Studio 424 167 N. Racine Ave, Chicago
August 23 - 25, 2015

David Bodhi Boylan
Alex Chitty
Laura Hart Newlon & Kate O'Neill
Jeff Prokash

Ergonomics reassures us that when objects are fit for our bodies, the stresses and strains from our daily routines will melt away. Ergonomics is functionality, legibility and ease, a fluid world without resistance. But these are the qualities of the designed object. What is the ergonomics of a work of art? 

In Almost Ergonomic, a group show featuring work by Alex Chitty, Laura Hart Newlon & Kate O’Neill, David Bodhi Boylan and Jeff Prokash, the lines that separate the designed object and the work of art are exaggerated for examination. Whereas the ergonomic form reveals itself, the almost ergonomic gets lost in its own self-reference, blocking the tactile pleasures of human-centered design. The works in this exhibition aspire to a smooth relationship with the human form but find themselves tripped up on their own materiality. 


Legible to Hand
Third Object

Does it fit your body size or could it be better? Can you see and hear all you need to see and hear? Is it hard to make it go wrong? Is it comfortable to use all the time? Is it easy and convenient to use? Is it easy to learn to use? Is it easy to clean and maintain? Do you feel relaxed after a period of use?✻

These guiding questions proposed by the Ergonomics Society tip us off to some of the critical questions within human-centered design. The field developed, like so many twentieth-century technologies,1 during global war in a search for more optimized military systems, and dispersed after World War II into the broader workplace and consumer goods spheres. Unlike the machinic efficiency sought out by early twentieth-century Taylorist optimization, the push towards ergonomic design saw the tool object as a translator between the hard, injurious world and the soft, kinetic human body.

As the above questions illustrate, this moment of translation had to do more than just “fit” the body; it had to be legible and available2 to the eye and mind. As a prominent design critic has put it, “the correct parts must be visible, and they must convey the correct message.” For the tool to be ready for the hand, it must first and foremost be ready for the eye.

Drawing loosely from the concept of human-centered design, the artists in Almost Ergonomic expand in a variety of ways on the point of transcription between the human body and the designed world. A well-designed object derives its legibility from its correspondence with human proportions––when one is able to visually assess clues about handiness or posture,3 a smooth engagement through the tool becomes more probable. However, as theorist Graham Harman has noted, “it is my body rather than my mind which judges the relative size of things,” as when one feels that a car will or will not fit in a parking space.§ The nearly ergonomic artwork taps into this linkage between visual cue, potential utility and subjective extension of the human form through the tool.

Ultimately, ergonomics is utopian. It promises solutions to the daily repetitive motions that wear on our bodies and produce both physiological and psychological discomfort. It tries to soothe what Harman identifies as “a powerful psychic trauma that cannot be overcome,” that is, the problem of being forever trapped4 within one singularly constituted body. While ergonomics can help us extend and enfold into the world, it nevertheless, despite our best efforts, always remains almost.

1 In their ongoing collaborative project Tropical Depression, Laura Hart Newlon and Kate O’Neill take an expansive lens to the links between furniture, body posture and global imperial power. They examine the once-popular papasan chair as a floating signifier of orientalist leisure. Constructed of fluorescent rubber, their version of the chair sags and slumps, relaxing into itself, and is surrounded by an installation of tropical houseplants, a personal mister and a mail order-style catalogue. Process photographs accompany the installation, depicting a black gloved hand creating the polyurethane chair. By constructing this kind of immersive space, Newlon and O’Neill show how global expressions of power play out in consumer fantasies and domestic spaces as much as in war zones and board rooms.

2 The objects that populate Alex Chitty’s three handmade display units play on this idea that good design makes itself visually legible. Various interconnected visual motifs, such as difference in repetition and reference to hands and handwork, drives an interpretive search across the cases. Certain objects we typically encounter in their mass-produced forms, such as a Rubik’s Cube or an egg cup, appear as clearly hand-fashioned unique objects. Other typically prefabricated objects show up here only partially made, like the half-lathed drumsticks or the unsewn leather gloves. Through these improbable groupings and duplications, the familiar forms and materials on each shelf are made weird, frustrating their use-potential in a way that teases us for demanding pragmatic legibility.

3 Take, for instance, Jeff Prokash’s concrete sculptures whose slouched postures are immediately anthropomorphic. These bricks emulate rather than protect the human body, demonstrating improper working posture and putting themselves at risk of workplace injury. As if worn out from a repetitive strain injury, they lean against walls, and slump over one another searching for solutions to their own daily wear. The challenge these sculptures pose is in this slippery anthropomorphism. On the one hand, it’s easy to project pathos onto the bricks as human stand-ins, slouched in pathetic dejection, fatigue, or submission. On the other, we consider them as dead tools of human construction, but ones that are useless given their limpness.

4 Committed to paper in handwritten ink, David Bodhi Boylan’s Obsolete in My Lifetime projects the date of the artist’s death and takes inventory of the obsolescence that has, does and will surround him as he moves through life. Boylan’s contribution underscores a continuity of mortality between humans and objects. While one might suppose the human body’s needs (and thus the form of ergonomic design) remain constant through time, the list of obsolete products, technologies and ideas suggests a deep mutability in human need and form.

  Ergonomics: Fit for Human Use, pamphlet published by Ergonomics Society, cited in Stephen Pheasant,
    Bodyspace: Anthropometry, Ergonomics and the Design of Work, (Philadelphia: Taylor & Francis, 2003 [1986]), 9.
  Donald A. Norman, The Design of Everyday Things, (New York: Basic Books, 1988), 4.
 § Graham Harman, Guerilla Metaphysics: Phenomenology and the Carpentry of Things, (Chicago: Open Court Publishing Company, 2005), 48.
  ibid, 49


Artists & Works 

David Bodhi Boylan

David Bodhi Boylan grew up in Woodstock, NY. He has an MFA from the University of Illinois at Chicago and a BFA from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, MA. His work consists of wood-sculpture and drawing, and is sustained by a preoccupation with the bizarre nature of the world we live in. David lives and works in Chicago.

Obsolete in My Lifetime, 1983 - 2068 
Ink on paper
84” x 59 1/2” 

Alex Chitty

Alex Chitty is a Chicago-based artist working fluidly across a wide-range of materials and processes, including printmaking, photography, sculpture and installation. Highly attuned to how things interact and how we interact with them, Chitty’s work operates as a series of constellations, misdirections and multiplicities. She teaches at the Museum of Contemporary Art, SAIC and Columbia College.

Slow Death of a Namesake (Unit #3) 
Powder-coated steel, glass, etched glass, two-way mirror, walnut, birch plywood, maple, lucite, brass, gold plated brass, pom-pom, aluminized prints, laser prints, plaster, postcards, twine, chain, coral, stone, ceramic cup, steel, stoneware, leather, Styrofoam cups. 
9" x 32" x 15”; 45" x 42" x 15”; and 52" x 60" x 15” 

Laura Hart Newlon & Kate O’Neill

Tropical Depression is an ongoing, iterative collaborative project between artists Kate O'Neill and Laura Hart Newlon. Both artists investigate the relationships between photography and objects, and together they share a fascination with the tropics as a connotative and mythologized zone. Kate O'Neill's work explores photography as a process of articulation, reflecting on contingency, vulnerability and (imperfect) repetition. O'Neill's work has been recently exhibited at Lease Agreement, Baltimore; LVL3, Chicago; EXPO Chicago, and Johalla Projects, Chicago. Working with photography, textiles and everyday ephemera, Laura Hart Newlon's work examines image-making and materiality. Newlon has recently exhibited work at ADDS DONNA, Chicago; Schneider Gallery, Chicago; EXPO Chicago, and Johalla Projects, Chicago.

Sunset 8-030 
Archival inkjet print
20" x 27.75" 

50s Barkcloth Jungle Palms Vintage Exotic 
Archival inkjet print
20" x 27.75" 

16.2: Interior Excess 
Archival inkjet print
20" x 27.75" 

Archival inkjet print
40" x 50" 

Draperies and Palm Trees, Tapestries and Easels 
Cast neon urethane papasan chair, tropical houseplants, plantation shutter divider, breeze blocks, tripod mister, grow light, flexible water tank, hose, pump. 

Jeff Prokash

Jeff Prokash is a Chicago based artist. He received his BFA from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2008 and is currently a graduate candidate for the Sculpture department at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Untitled (Concrete Slump) 
Concrete, upholstery foam, steel
24" x 30" x 13" 

Untitled (Concrete Slump) 
Concrete, upholstery foam
56" x 18" x 8" 

Untitled (Concrete Slump) 
Concrete, upholstery foam
6" x 22" x 10" 

Untitled (Concrete Slump) 
Concrete, upholstery foam
4" x 30" x 14" 

Untitled (Ladder) 
24" x 6" x 70"


Photos: Soohyun Kim