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Conceptual art on auction site calls attention to culture of consumption

Melissa Mitchell, Arts Editor


Click photo to enlarge
Photo by Conrad Bakker
Conrad Bakker's hand-carved wooden "Melmac" teacup is for sale on eBay through Oct. 20.

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Type the key words “pink Melmac” into the search window on and you’re likely to find a few dozen matches. At any given time, such a search yields gravy boats, butter dishes, cups, saucers, plates and just about every other type of item manufactured and marketed in the 1950s as part of the now-retro Melmac brand of dinnerware.

But each week for the past few – and through the end of October – ’50s dishware shoppers have reported sightings nearly as strange as those that reportedly appeared in the night skies over Roswell, N.M. The UPO (unidentified plastic object) among the rose-colored dishware offered for sale in weekly eBay auctions lately has been a series of pink “plastic” objects created by Conrad Bakker (pronounced BAH-kuhr), a professor of art and design at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

But what Bakker’s selling is not really plastic. And definitely not dishwasher safe.

Each week, he has been putting up for auction a different simulated Melmac item, hand-carved from wood and painted by the artist himself. Bakker has carved out something of a niche for himself in the contemporary art world, where he’s become increasingly known for his own brand of conceptual art that draws attention to the 21st-century, post-modern culture of consumption.

Through Oct. 20, Bakker’s auction listing is for a teacup. Last week, his pink Melmac-esque serving bowl fetched a handsome return of $45. To date, one of the most popular auctions from the series has been for a gravy boat, which attracted the attention of 11 bidders, and commanded a return of $76. Fifteen bidders battled for the chance to own a replica of another popular Melmac piece – a divided serving dish.

The entire auction series is actually part of a larger art installation on view through Oct. 28 in the exhibition “The Object of Design,” curated by Titia Hulst and Barbara Mundy at the Pelham Art Center in Pelham, N.Y. Bakker’s installation, titled “UntitledProject: EVERYDAY/eBAY,” started out with each of the auction items on display under an enlarged image of the corresponding eBay sales photo. Each week, a different object has been auctioned, then shipped to the winning  bidder.

“This exhibition focuses on aspects of domestic design objects,” said Bakker, who has turned eBay into the medium for his artistic messages before. “My first eBay project – in 2004 – involved carved and painted Tupperware measuring-cup sets.”

For subsequent projects and exhibitions – all of which he classifies under the “Untitled Projects” moniker – Bakker has made and sold paintings of auctions of Eames fiberglass shell chairs, “postcards from exotic locations sold from Indiana,” “Slacker” brand T-shirts and an Edward Ruscha artist book.

So, what is the artist hoping to accomplish with all this carving, painting, packaging and marketing?

“I carve and paint simulations of everyday objects and position them in specific contexts so that they might reveal relationships – economies between persons and things and spaces,” Bakker said. “As the objects I make reveal these economies, they also attempt to provide a critical platform for understanding the complexity of what it means to live in a culture of consumption and have relationships to people and things in a world dependent upon artifice.”

In addition to eBay, Bakker has built projects around other popular channels for acquiring stuff. He once created and distributed a glossy, color catalog featuring his trademark primitively carved, one-of-a-kind pieces. In that case, the art objects resembled products – such as binoculars and stereo headphones – that are typically mass marketed in consumer-goods catalogs. For another project, he created his own version of household cast-offs, then displayed and sold them at a yard sale.

The current eBay project and exhibition grew from Bakker’s desire to focus on hand-held domestic objects.

“The pink Melmac/Melamine detail helps locate these objects as a collectible, but also positions it as a specific object from  a specific moment of American domestic history,” he said. “These objects were initially designed for a specific gender and class of individuals who were interested in decorative, functional objects.

“I am interested in that history and the political space in which these objects functioned then – in kitchens – and now – on eBay.”

And it’s no coincidence that the photos of each piece of pseudo-Melmac include an extra detail.

“I was also interested in having these specific carved and painted objects held by hand in a domestic space – a pictorial strategy commonly used on eBay,” Bakker said. “All the images were taken in my kitchen.”

Looking at the current auction, as well as past auctions from this project (viewable by searching completed auctions), one thing stands out: The “Melmac” auctions with the greatest number of bids and highest prices tend to be Bakker’s decoys.

“The watchers and bidders of these auctions are often collectors of my work or people who have seen the exhibition, but sometimes they are people who are avid collectors of the objects I am replicating,” he said. “Every once in a while, often early in the auction, there are bids placed that I’m pretty certain are based upon misidentification, but it is made pretty obvious that I am not out to fool the bidders, as my auction description clearly states that these are carved and painted versions of the real thing.”

While the market for Melmac appears to be a bit glutted at present, based on the going prices – as well as plenty of no-sales – for the real McCoy, Bakker added that “at times, the going value of the original object is close to the final value of my carved and painted versions.”

“The eBay projects featuring the Eames chair paintings and the Ruscha artist book functioned in this way,” he said.

Next up on Bakker’s auction block will be images of Rolex watches, for a month-long group exhibition in December. While the exact nature of that project is still evolving, the U. of I. artist said his work will be part of an eBay-specific exhibition in December called “ebayaday,” curated by University of Michigan art and design professor Rebekah Modrak and U. of M. graduate student Zackery Denfeld.