The founder of New York gallery Culture Object explains his passion for flamboyant display.
AFTER WORKING AS an independent consultant to blue-chip galleries and museums, Damon Crain’s transition to running his own gallery was a natural development. Rather than immediately opening a bricks-and-mortar space, the New York-based art and design dealer operated his gallery Culture Object privately for nearly a decade – until he opened his storefront a week before Covid-19 hit the city. The pandemic shifted market dynamics, as well as Crain’s plans, but he has just expanded his gallery into the adjacent unit, and his foresight is paying off.
The name of his gallery signals Crain’s refusal to categorise an object as either art or design. “I don’t rely on these tropes that are too familiar and taken for granted, like ‘What is art as opposed to design?’” he declares. His answer is that we are looking at “a material that lives in a cultural space.” Tucked between the Garment District’s wholesale stores, Culture Object immerses the visitors in Damon’s particular design vision of a cultural space.
What was once a parking lot for food trucks is now a flamboyant gallery with connected rooms, each staged by its owner as a homage to a classic interior: the Peacock Room salutes the namesake teal-walled Chinese porcelain gallery at the Smithsonian Museum; the Gold Room is inspired by a room at Stockholm’s City Hall where the Nobel Prize ceremony was originally held. Crain has a number of exhibitions in these rooms each year that last anywhere from 1-3 months. At present, they include works by Christopher Maschinot and Luke Proctor in the former, as well as Jonatan Nilsson and Carol Milne in the latter.
“White cube is dead,” says Crain. The dealer’s relationship with collectors over the years as a consultant has influenced his view that design is best displayed in characterful, living environments that do not shy away from striking backdrops.
“Whenever I visited a client’s home, I saw art and design with new eyes because they live in distinct environments,” he says. The decision to open his venture has partially stemmed from this determination to represent designers his own way. “I am familiar with the gallery model and retail, and I have an opportunity here to do things outside the mould,” he adds. “I borrow parts from different experiences and see what fits.”
Crain notes however that his programming is not simply reflective of his taste but is rather shaped by the realities of the moment. “The work needs to stand out in a space,” is his primary advice to the artists and designers he collaborates with.
Amidst various optic distractions online and in real life, he believes visual lexicons that compete with the cacophony and demand viewer attention are crucial. A key to standing out today, he thinks, is work that draws attention to the maker’s hand and reminds viewers of the involvement of human touch.
Maxwell Mustardo’s new show ‘The Substance of Style’, for example, offers the New Jersey-based designer’s exuberant interpretations of stoneware, some with PVC coating. Humorous and mysterious, the vessels in Mustardo’s first solo show in New York radiate ecstatic candy colours on their highly textural surfaces and bulbous forms.
With references to antiquity and digital culture, the designer’s objects are both archaic and futuristic, hinting that they might have been excavated or travelled from the future. Next on the gallery’s calendar is the group show Transcendental Objects, opening on 5th October, with 13 artists, most of whom are among the gallery’s roster of 40 names such as North Carolina-based tapestry artist Judit Just Anteló and metalsmith Rachel David.
Additionally, the Nashville-based ceramist Keavy Murphree’s commedia dell’arte-inspired figures and Illinois-based Tim Kowalczyk’s cardboard box-looking ceramics will be peppered around the Peacock Room under the theme of design that transcends the purpose of function for bold aesthetic statements. On 10th November, the Gold Room will start hosting another 10-artist group show that explores side tables through either a material perspective, or the potential of storytelling through an object. The South Korean mother of pearl inlay artist Jian Yoo’s solo show is due to open on 19th October.
“I see myself as a coach because my intention is to push the artists’ works to the next level,” Crain says. “There are so many artists doing great work, but the question for me is finding people whose agendas are already aligned with mine and help them do the best they can.”