The shelves in my mother’s living room hold a ragtag collection of objects, ranging from perplexing and mundane (an XXL can of “Allens” baked beans from the early ‘80s) to rare and precious (a nineteenth-century Bible, a Herend porcelain rabbit). These items have remained relatively undisturbed in their positions for as long as I have been sentient. Despite this, and despite raising a daughter who takes after her own ecumenical interest in object collections, my mother’s favorite disparagement at flea markets has always been: “DUST CATCHER!”
How the items on the shelves have been spared this label, I don’t know. I assume most (all?) were gifts. The absolute worst of all dust catchers, according to Mom, are paperweights, which are pointless and just take up space. Never give someone a dust catcher, she’ll tell you, because it’s just another thing they’ll have to make room for. And clean.
Uselessness, the kind scorned by my mother except when it came to the objects she loved, was the jumping-off point for “The Paperweight Show,” an exhibition that opened this month at the Fisher Parrish Gallery in Brooklyn. Zoe Fisher, one of the gallery owners and curators, acknowledges that the function manqué of the show’s subject is a part of its appeal.
“The Paperweight Show” is the inaugural exhibition for the gallery, run by Fisher (formerly of 99¢ Plus and HANDJOB) with Patrick Parrish of the namesake gallery. More than 100 artists and designers were invited to contribute a “paperweight” measuring no larger than six inches cubed—a size restriction that doesn’t seem to have been followed to the letter, but hey, I’m not the paperweight police.
When I arrived to the gallery on opening night, I tried to pick up a handout from a fanned-out pile of fliers on the front table, only to realize that it was, in fact, a sort of meta-paperweight: a paperweight made of paper (not the first semiotic double-take I’d have at the show—an errant PBR can placed on an exhibition table also had me guessing). Fisher and Parrish have designed the exhibition as a series of snaking tables, chock-full of tchotchkes ranging in weight, material, and conceptual focus.
Some participants, like the artist Aria McManus, responded to the Fisher Parrish call with witty interpretations of the object’s function. McManus’s paperweight, titled “The Problem and Solution,” consists of a gooseneck fan contraption blowing away a stack of paper as it weighs it down—a sort of Radio Shack ourobouros.
But the most exciting objects in “The Paperweight Show” were those that focused on tactility, who straddled the line between art-world reverence and prompted interaction. Chen Chen and Kai Williams’ paperweight hidden beneath a handled box labeled “Please Lift,” for example, or Chris Beeston’s steel Sex Cube, with innie/outie halves engineered to fit flush.
I’m not embarrassed to admit to that I rubbed Daniel Michalik’s inviting, buttery cork dome like it was a small animal.
What Mom missed about dust catchers is that pleasure is a function in itself. Sometimes you just want something that you can run your hand across, or pick up, or tell a story about. Sometimes you just want an artifact of an idea or a memory. Sometimes, you go ahead and buy the can of baked beans or the steel sex-cube, because it might still be on your shelf thirty years later.
Lila Allen is a design writer and researcher living in Brooklyn.