10 Questions With… Mariah Nielson
Mariah Nielson, the daughter of the late American artist and designer JB Blunk, carved a new path to contextualize her father’s legacy by opening the gallery Blunk Space in the summer of 2021. After running the JB Blunk Estate, working at San Francisco’s Museum of Craft and Design, and curating shows in California and London, Nielson saw the potential in tying Blunk’s legacy with new generation artists and designers who similarly approach function and art with a dose of mystery and humor.
The gallery has, so far, exhibited a range of talent, working in painting, wood, ceramic, stone, bronze, and jewelry. While jewelry artists will be heavily represented in the programming for the next two years, the current show is dedicated to hooks. Nielson has invited over hundred artists from United States, United Kingdom, Europe, Japan, and Mexico to respond to the brief of creating a hook. Fittingly titled “100 Hooks,” the show also recalls the “100 Chairs in 100 Days” project of Italian artist and designer Martino Gamper who was the subject of a two-person show at the gallery with Adam Pogue last fall. The show’s “hook” is also similar to a project Blunk helmed in 1981 by inviting one hundred artists to each design a plate. Nielson selects the gallery artists mostly out of those who were invited for the residency at her father’s famous studio home in Inverness, California. In fact, the challenges the house presented around facilitating large groups was another prompt for her to open a galley space. A portion of the hooks in the group show is currently on display at the Blunk House.
The opening of the gallery, which is located at Point Reyes Station in California also coincided with a renewed interest in Blunk’s work in wood and ceramic. Kasmin Gallery opened the artist’s first New York exhibition in 2020, displaying a broad range of material and scale. The same year, a self-titled book was released by the London publisher Dent-De-Leone, and since, Blunk’s work has been featured in group exhibitions at Blum & Poe, R & Company, The Landing, and Anthony Meier. In 2022, Kasmin Gallery opened another solo show to exhibit the largest display of Blunk’s jewelry, titled Muse. In February, The Future Perfect will open a show of Blunk’s work at their Los Angeles space during art fair Frieze L.A.; this spring, Martell Foundation in Cognac will open the first European survey of Blunk, with exhibition design by Martino Gamper.
How Mariah Nielson Honors the Legacy of Her Father, JB Blunk
Interior Design: Could you tell us how you decided to initiate Blunk Space?
Mariah Nielson: I set up the gallery in June of 2021, which is also when we had our first show. The JB Blunk Estate had taken over the lease of this space in Point Reyes Station in May of 2020, and we originally planned to use it as our archive and storage for online products, and an office. Once we moved in, we realized we had enough room to exhibit some of my father’s work. The presentation of JB’s work in June of 2021 kicked off a series of exhibitions. Then we decided to focus on turning the space into a gallery because it can accommodate shows beautifully. The space has a charm to it: it used to be an old mechanic’s garage, where they repaired cars in the 1940s; in the ‘60s, it was converted into a series of retail spaces, so it has a very broad industrial feel. We painted the whole space white and the floor is concrete. There are beautiful wood beams exposed in the ceiling, and there are really interesting angles because of the way the space was chopped up back in the ‘60s.
ID: As the curator, how do you select the exhibiting artists? Do they have to be responding to your father’s work in a way?
MN: The focus of the gallery is JB’s work and the artists from his circle. There are also contemporary artists and designers with links to my father’s work. These are artists who are inspired by his work and in some cases have spent time at his home or have perhaps been looking at his work from afar. Everyone who exhibits has some connection to JB’s practice and is referencing his work in some way, whether historically or in a contemporary way.
ID: Remembering Kasmin Gallery’s Chelsea show of JB Blunk’s furniture, sculpture, and jewelry in 2021, scale is an important element in his work. How does this element of unity between large and small pieces come together in gallery shows?
MN: I love a mix of scales and mediums—that blend of mediums is really important because that’s what my father did on a daily basis. In the summer of 2022, we had a show of large paintings by Jack Wright, as big as we can fit in through the door basically. Last year, we also had large tables and this exquisite redwood mirror in an exhibition of Charles de Lisle and Rick Yoshimoto. We fit the mirror through the door and it looked fantastic, and we called it “The Magic Portal.”
ID: JB Blunk was also heavily influenced by Japanese ceramics. Are you interested in exhibiting Japanese artists and designers at the gallery?
MN: Sure, we had a show of Rick Yoshimoto, who is Japanese-Hawaiian, and in late 2021, we had the ceramic exhibition, Mingei to Modern which included a number of Japanese artists. We have exhibitions lined up next year and into 2025 with Japanese artists, and “100 Hooks” includes quite a number of artists from Japan as well.
ID: How influential is your previous curator role at the Museum of Craft and Design, San Francisco today? There must be an emotional element to running a space under your father’s name but does your previous experience influence it in any way?
MN: The museum really trusted me when they hired me to be the curator because I was an architect and I didn’t have a lot of experience working as a curator. I was running the JB Blunk Residency out of my father’s home when I began working at the museum. That said, I had curated shows with the artists and residents and had a bit of experience in terms of bringing work together and organizing a show. But the museum really gave me a chance, which I’m extremely grateful for. What I learned working at the museum was how to put a show together from the beginning to the end, with all of the logistics: How to manage a team, how to do the lighting, or the exhibition text, which was all a great foundation.
ID: The gallery’s previous show with Martino Gamper and Adam Pogue had a humorous element. Gamper’s work feels inspired by the Italian Radical movement of the ‘60s. How did you end up inviting them for a show?
MN: I met Martino in 2008. I helped him curate his design is a state of mind show at the Serpentine and actually lived next door to him for quite a few years in London. I was looking forward to the chance of having a show of his work at our gallery, and there is such a strong connection between his work and Adam’s, as well as my father’s. Martino has been looking at my father’s work for years and is deeply inspired by the home. I am really happy with this pairing.
ID: This must be easy given how dramatic and inspirational JB Blunk’s house is.
MN: A lot of people call it my father’s masterpiece—it’s a living sculpture. JB made almost everything in the home and there’s so much play and whimsy with functional artworks wherever you look. The door handle is a sculpture but also a door handle; the light pole is a sculpture but also a light pole. There’s there’s just this endless slippage between art, design, and craft in the home.
,ID: JB Blunk loved working in isolation, which also influenced his visual vocabulary. How do you see the gallery’s role in bringing some attention to his work for people who haven’t been aware of his practice?
MN: The gallery is a public-facing part of the space since we can’t do that much public programming at the house. What has been most exciting about having a gallery space is having events there. We can really activate JB’s work and make it much more public and create a dialogue. Contemporary artists and designers are now getting a chance to see a lot of his work in person.
ID: Obsession, I think, was an element in JB’s work in terms of materials, process, and scale. I see a similar thread in Gamper’s work with his “100 Chairs” project and your current “100 Hooks” exhibition.
MN: The obsessive and the playful qualities in Martino’s work are absolutely in line with my father’s work. There is also the interest in working with salvaged materials. Martino’s “100 Chairs” are those he found on the streets of London, and my father’s salvaged wood comes from up north. They both took what others considered useless and transformed them into something absolutely beautiful.
ID: Function and art are mingled in a mysterious way in JB Blunk’s practice. How does the “100 Hooks” exhibition represent this?
MN: There’s always this element of surprise in JB’s work. What can you do with a hook, which is an object that’s ubiquitous and typically overlooked? How can you create something or play with that typology and create something that’s actually the center of attention?
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