Variations on a Sample at LAMAG (Los Angeles Museum Art Gallery)

COLA Exhibition // 2023/24 City of Los Angeles Independent Master of Artist Project

May 18 – July 20, 2024





Written by Jori Finkel

You’ve never seen a chandelier quite like this. If a typical Victorian chandelier resembles an overflowing bouquet in its morphology, this form is more like a tensed hand or claw, with white flowers budding from the tips. And instead of metal, the material is ceramic, glazed with a rich black and cobalt floral pattern and a competing leafy pattern set in the center. This “Flowering Chandelier” is in fact not a lighting fixture at all but a fantastic, unruly sculpture by Los Angeles artist Bari Ziperstein riffing on a functional design by Austrian designer Dagobert Peche, one of the leaders of the influential and also impossibly idealistic Wiener Werkstätte movement. 

Ziperstein’s artwork often does double duty this way. She makes brilliantly (sometimes garishly) colored, ridiculously gorgeous, formally inventive sculptures rooted in her research of a particular historical period. While conceptual artists at one extreme tend to make artworks that are anemic—rich on ideas but deliberately thin from a material or sensorial standpoint, Ziperstein’s research interests and archival work yields visually seductive, defiantly colorful objects. 

While best known for her ceramics today, the artist was mainly doing abstract painting before she entered graduate school at CalArts. By the time she earned her M.F.A. in 2004, having studied under the likes of Michael Asher, she identified more as an installation artist and conceptual artist. It took a few more years before she rediscovered a love of working with clay, which could with its pigmented glazes and experimental structures fuse many of her interests.

Recently, the artist has drawn on the history of Soviet propaganda posters, textiles and architecture to make ceramic sculptures exploring issues of political censorship and oppression. But in 2022,  when she became a scholar in residence at the Wolfsonian museum and library in Miami to dig deeper into those archives, she found herself drawn instead to the impeccably crafted objects, textiles and furnishings of Wiener Werkstätte. 

An art and design studio founded in Vienna in 1903, Wiener Werkstätte is now recognized as an important bridge between 19th-century Arts and Crafts movement, with its fetishization of the organic and handmade in the face of mass industrialization, and 20th-century groups like the Bauhaus, which celebrated unadorned geometrical structure. It’s also known for being led by a number of Jewish artists and serving a supposedly integrated, prosperous Jewish clientele in Vienna, a community soon to be destroyed by World War II.

A descendant of Jewish immigrants, Ziperstein is interested in the movement’s politics and aesthetics both—a “more is more” ethos prizing stylized floral motifs and a gilded elegance in furniture and furnishings. By sampling these patterns and forms in her work, she tests how they survive a contemporary lens and, often, radical shifts in scale. For one sculpture, she takes a tiny silver-gridwork basket by Wiener Werkstätte co-founder Josef Hoffmann and expands and extends the grid so it resembles a miniature skyscraper, highlighting an interesting slippage between household container and architecture.  

Her COLA show, “Variations on a Sample,” also explores the idea of the gesamtkunstwerk or “total work of art,” which Wiener Werkstätte helped to popularize. The German composer Richard Wagner used the term early on in a pair of 1849 essays (“Art and Revolution” and “The Artwork of the Future”) to describe an ideal art form that, like the best of Greek theater, reunites music, drama and dance, but the artists of the Wiener Werkstätte appropriated the concept to refer to a thoroughly considered visual or spatial experience. A leading example is the exquisitely appointed Palais Stoclet in Brussels, where Hoffmann and team designed every element of the house—from lavish marble and wood-inlaid floors to handsome silver tea sets to the odd, column-shaped hedges outside—to contribute to the larger aesthetic. 

For her COLA show, Ziperstein did not remake everything from floor to ceiling but hints at that potential. She has positioned her sculptures on geometric pedestals dressed with sage and mint-hued skirts, offset by walls painted in a harvest color. And, pointing to the way that sculpture can transcend the pedestal and help define a space, she has installed tiny, knob-like ceramics on the gallery walls just above eye level. Ziperstein knows that the utopian promise underlying the Wiener Werkstätte project—the idea that obsessively well-made design could keep anti-Semitism and war at bay—has been shattered by two World Wars and the rise of fascism. She is sifting through the debris to salvage and reimagine the shards.