Designer Rafael de Cárdenas embraces childlike wonder in a new curatorial effort – 71Bait

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Justin Camp

Talking to architect and designer Rafael de Cárdenas is an encyclopedic experience. Within the first five minutes of our conversation, he babbles on innuendos S,M,L,XL, a book by the influential architectural firm OMA; a Donna Summer cover of a Vangelis song from the HBO drama Industry; and the late Downtown gossip columnist Stephen Saban’s film reviews.

While the topic of our conversation is ostensibly art collecting, these tangents are important pointers to de Cárdenas’ aesthetic life. His approach to curating and collecting is similarly expansive, eschewing academic rigor and trendy marketability. Instead, de Cárdenas intuitively appreciates how disparate objects can connect. His own collection includes paintings by little-known folk artist Ralph Redpath, pottery by New Mexico-based chef Johnny Santiago Adao Ortiz-Concha, and a tuft of hair by Yuji Agematsu.

“I have a very short attention span. I get bored with things easily,” said de Cárdenas. “I don’t think I have any approach – there’s this idea that there’s some sort of tornado and things will pack up along the way.”

De Cárdenas’ outspoken, just-move-it approach also led to his latest art world project: the designer has collaborated with the Children’s Museum of the Arts (CMA) in New York to present Hold Me, a curated exhibition and Fundraising event auction featuring works by artists from around the world, opening on October 3rd. (Bid on Artsy by October 6th.)

“I’ve seen Rafael move things that way, arrange things, find those moments,” said Seth Cameron, executive director of the CMA. “As much as he thinks about his work, there’s still that intuitive aesthetic relationship where you have to make decisions based on phenomenological experience – does it feel right or not?”

Hold Me will feature works by artists ranging from craft icon Anni Albers to architect Drew Seskunas and mother-daughter artist duo sculptor Linda Lopez and her five-year-old Oona. The pieces on display beg to be held, examined, and embraced, thrusting the viewer back into the intimacy and curiosity of childhood. Cameron said he wanted to construct a whimsical, hermetic universe of objects — a “cabinet of curiosities” — and allow de Cárdenas to move those objects around with a childlike wonder that’s part of the museum’s ethos.

“Play isn’t something that’s quarantined in childhood, it’s part of how we navigate the world throughout our lives,” Cameron explained of his philosophy in running the museum. The institution supports a number of programs such as Artist-Educators-in-Residence and the Look Make Show, a digital learning center that makes art education accessible to children. “Our goal [at the CMA] is to bring children, who are often excluded from the creative space of the art world, and let them influence us and participate in our thinking,” continued Cameron. “We learn from things children do; they learn from things adults do. This interchange is like a tornado.”

This ideal meshes with the work of de Cárdenas. While his freewheeling curation exhibits a youthful playfulness, his broader aesthetic and artistic life is also deeply connected to his own youth. “I spent my childhood imagining my future and pretending to be that future, imitating that future,” de Cárdenas said. “Everything was available in my house. When I created a mythical world, I incorporated a chair from the living room, brought in an ashtray, [or] a penthouse magazine I kept under my bed for five years.”

The self-described “gay kid in a straight household” might find strength and self-definition in a deliberate arrangement of objects, a particular song by Donna Summer, or a gossip columnist’s movie reviews. “All of those things felt worthwhile,” Cárdenas said, but they were also fun. The alchemy between these feelings permeates his aesthetic philosophy to this day.

For example, his plastic spool facade for the Kenzo flagship store in Seoul and his kaleidoscopic Cartier boutique in Tokyo use unconventional surfaces to evoke the history and materiality of the products sold within. In his advisory role at the art and design fair Object & Thing, he has eliminated traditional fair structures such as stands or even posters in favor of curated clusters of different artist works that de Cárdenas organizes himself.

As de Cárdenas and Cameron discussed collecting and curating with me for this story, they kept coming back to discussions about play, striving, and the permeable exchange between childhood and adulthood. For de Cárdenas, this exchange is like an unbroken chain of inspiration, self-determination, and unstructured experimentation that stretches back to his youth.

“I feel like I’m the same person I’ve been since I was seven, I just know more stuff,” de Cárdenas said. “My actions were trying to lift something heavy, which I didn’t have to do. I always had a good time, I was just stressed about it. I think it’s only in the last seven to ten years that I’ve realized I’m the same person, I still like those things.”

For Cameron, who is a father, the exchange between child and parents, even between object and viewer, is more of an up and down.

“The show’s title ‘Hold Me’ has become more meaningful as the project has evolved,” said Cameron. “That’s a phrase I’ve heard a lot — it’s a phrase that kind of makes me a father, it gives me that identity. I hear that all the time. The older my kids get, the less I hear it. And now maybe I’m the one who says it more. It’s an order, it’s vulnerable. And I think artworks ask that of us – they ask to be seen or held, and they are as vulnerable as they command us.”

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