The HAAS Brothers “Beast In Show” Interview
With Curator Ben Tollefson
At SCAD Musuem of Art, Savannah, GA
April 25th, 2021
We open our interview with Ben with his curatorial statement for the show
Through meticulous craftsmanship in myriad materials, twin brothers Nikolai and Simon Haas create irreverent sculptures that explore themes like nature, fantasy, and sexuality. Their anthropomorphic works defy categorization, most often occupying the space between fine art and functional objects. Utilizing techniques and media like stone carving, metal casting, ceramics, and beading, the brothers first came to prominence with their furniture designs and home decor, and have since expanded their practice to sculpture and public art. Informed by their creative upbringing and individual artistic pursuits, the Haas Brothers began collaborating in 2010, bringing their respective passions and distinct specialties together to create works that are “bigger than what each would have made on his own.” The brothers, raised by a sculptor father and opera singer mother, originally studied stone carving. Simon went on to pursue painting and Nikolai toured as a musician before they convened in Los Angeles and began their eponymous brand.
In Beast in Show, the Haas Brothers present recent “beast” sculptures ranging in scale from the hand-held to the larger-than-life. These fantastical creatures are an ongoing body of work and are born of earlier biomorphic furniture designs that incorporated shag fur and animalistic feet. Based in an exploration of the emotional states of humans, the beasts are a varied species of distinct personalities and identities, with diverse genders and sexualities. Composed of natural fur from a variety of animals paired with cast bronze or carved wood, the beasts typically only possess legs and horns, leaving viewers to infer personality from gesture and form rather than facial features. With titles like Snail Earnhardt Jr. and Shaggy Gyllenhaal, the beasts are charming, odd, whimsical, and humorous, reflective of the artists’ spirited approach to art making.
The show is titled: "Beast in Show." What function do the beasts serve in this installation? What is the overall concept?
The Haas Brothers’ “Beasts” are an on-going group of works that developed after Nikolai visited Iceland and sourced an Icelandic sheepskin pelt, which was later used as the fur of biomorphic forms that became the beasts. These creatures were born out of functional design, but are now a means for the brothers to explore the personalities and traits of loved ones, while examining broader issues of gender, sexuality, humor, and the uncanny. In this installation, the beasts serve as an approachable and charming cast of characters, varying in scale, and immersing visitors in the wacky minds of their creators.
What place does gender, sexuality, and imagination play in the Haas Brother's work?
Gender, sexuality, and imagination are intertwined in the brother’s work; the beasts often have exaggerated genitalia, allowing the brothers to make a farce of the concept of shame as it relates to sex and bodies. By including hyperbolic anatomy on these cute and friendly creatures, the brothers illicit a laughable response in viewers, in the hopes of chiseling away at ingrained ideas of shame.
Tell us a bit about the process of working on this show.
It was a pleasure to collaborate with Haas Brothers on this exhibition! From the beginning, they were extremely enthusiastic, and especially interested in bridging their work with areas of study at SCAD like fibers, industrial design, furniture design, and sculpture. We began planning the exhibition at the beginning of the pandemic, so there was a lot of uncertainty about what was achievable. The fact that the gallery is one of smaller spaces in the museum helped us to focus the vision of the show, and present a handful ambitious new works alongside a range of small-scale works borrowed from collectors and their gallery, Marianne Boesky. Originally, we had plans to make a mural that spanned every wall of the exhibition space. Instead, the plans evolved so that we really focused on the beasts, and chose place them in a white gallery on pedestals lit from below, emphasizing their beautiful cast bronze extremities. This also allowed us to play around with the lighting of the space. Since the smaller beasts were lit from below, we were able to light the space a little more dimly, which creates a more intimate experience, and causes visitors to get close to these friendly beings.
What is special about what the Haas Brother's built for this show?
The brothers made several new large-scale works for the exhibition, which included their largest cast-bronze work to date, punnily named “Tallmala Harris” (all of the beasts are named with puns referencing pop culture). They also made two new works with carved mahogany legs. The brothers have been using real fur as adornment for the beasts until very recently, and while the exhibition at the SCAD Museum of Art does include natural furs, the new large works in our exhibition demonstrate their newfound commitment to artificial fur as a friendlier alternative.
What materials are used in creating the beasts?
The initial material that inspired the beasts was an Icelandic sheepskin pelt that Nikolai bought at a gas station while visiting Iceland, and previous beasts have had a diverse array of furs like raccoon, goat, rabbit, alpaca or beaver. In addition to fur, the legs, antennae, horns, genitalia or other extremities are usually made of cast bronze or carved wood.
What inspires the Haas Brother's practice?
Curiosity, research, craftsmanship and FUN! There’s a tendency to dismiss whimsical and charming work, and I think the Haas Brother’s practice is a great example of creating fun work that’s born from enduring curiosity and research, paired with many laborious hours of meticulous craftsmanship. For me, their work is a reminder not to take yourself too seriously, and to pursue what you love because you truly enjoy it.
How do the Haas Brother's differentiate between art and design in their practice, if at all?
The brothers don't like to put restrictions on any kind of creating, and have actively pushed against external forces that have attempted to categorize their work. They once exhibited paintings in a design art fair by entering the handmade frames they were displayed in as the “object.” I think it’s a natural tendency to group the works in one category or another, but I look at their work more as an inclusive worldview that doesn’t limit itself by categories, material or format. Because they are so willing to try their hand at so many different kinds of projects, we’ll be surprised by forms their work takes in the future!
Describe biomorphic furniture to someone who isn't aware of what that means.
The term biomorphic in art has historically meant abstracted forms that reference the living, whether that be human, animal or other organisms found in nature. For the Haas Brothers, when they make a something like a sofa, for example, the work is biomorphic in that the “feet” of the furniture are animal-like, and the body of the sofa may mimic bodily forms found in the animal kingdom, without being a direct reference to a specific creature.
What potential do you see in the brother's design practice for a larger audience?
I hope a larger audience might see that all sources of inspiration are valid, and that the central tenants of a design or art practice may be centered around fun or play.
How has the response to the show been from visitors? Where does their work fit within the larger makeup of Georgia?
We’ve had great responses to the work! We have a lot of laughter and curiosity. I hope that their work and this exhibition will demonstrate to Georgians that through institutions like the SCAD Museum of Art, new ideas and boundary-pushing design from national and international artists are available for all ages and demographics.
Thank you to Ben and SCADMofA Savannah for hosting us and talking about the process of working with The Haas Brothers for “Beast in Show”
Published May 20, 2021