“Function” in constant flux

A show at Arts + Literature Laboratory brings together challenging 3D work by 12 artists.

A show at Arts + Literature Laboratory brings together challenging 3D work by 12 artists. 

Mie Kongo's work draws ideas from games, toys, and structural models. Photo by Don Yoshida.

Mie Kongo‘s work draws ideas from games, toys, and structural models. Photo by Don Yoshida.


An object’s function is often determined by the practical purpose it was designed to serve, but in all likelihood it carries out a variety of functions, or dysfunctions, be they utilitarian, social, nostalgic, or otherwise. Twelve artists use works in 3D to explore these notions in Beyond Function, a juried exhibition on display through June 18 at Arts + Literature Laboratory (ALL) at 2021 Winnebago St.

Before visiting this show, it helps to dispense with the idea that form and function are an opposed binary, or that one must inherently be subservient to the other. “While the kettle has clear utilitarian value in heating water for tea,” reads the exhibition’s prospectus, “tea-drinking serves other kinds of cultural, relational, and ritualistic functions.” An object’s various functions can “contradict or work in unison, replace or build upon one another,” and they can change depending on their context.

Juror Gail Simpson, an art professor at UW-Madison, whittled down the entries to 16 works by 12 artists, four of whom are local to Madison. Simpson is herself a primarily sculptural artist with a number of public works in the area, such as “Through Veins” at the Madison Water Utility Building and “Under The Surface” at Dejope Residence Hall.

“The exhibit was based on ‘function,’ so I was interested in work that interpreted the theme in an unusual way. I was okay with a non-literal interpretation, although some of the work is actually functional,” she says. “I was interested in ideas about purpose, intention, and our (human) efforts to accomplish something or be productive.”

The atmosphere at ALL—a red-brick building in the Schenk-Atwood neighborhood—is sunny and energetic. Rippled glass, relics of the building’s former life as Madison Pattern Works, lets in plenty of natural light to view the work. A tinkling, percussive beat permeates the space, emanating from Coon Rapids, Minnesota-based artist Jayson Randall’s electronic sculpture, “Cubed,” in a smaller rear room.

Simpson writes in her juror’s statement that while functional objects are typically defined by utilitarian and aesthetic purposes, they can also provoke self-reflection or societal transformation—functions in and of themselves.

In “Fragile II,” UW-Madison MFA candidate Allison Roberts illustrates the fragility of “home,” and the rituals people create to preserve it, through a house-shaped sugar cookie nestled in a much larger wooden box. In the surrealist “Draw,” Boston-based artist Céline Browning contrasts the utility of a gun (e.g. intimidation, injury, or death) with the futility of violence: Two guns point toward one another, their barrels ineffectually meeting in the middle.

“Draw” by Céline Browning. Photo by Sarah Witman.

Evansville, Illinois-based ceramics sculptor and educator Mie Kongo, the prizewinning artist of Beyond Function, describes her work as “standing astride both art and design.”

The individual components of Kongo’s pieces—structures made of smooth porcelain, sanded blonde wood, and wool felt—form an abstract yet cohesive whole.

In her artist’s statement for Beyond Function, Kongo describes how she strives to use precise, careful design and craftsmanship to convey “casualness and playfulness” through her work. While those two facets of her process might seem to be at odds—the ego and the id—she executes both harmoniously.

Kongo’s prize is the opportunity to show more of her work in an upcoming show in 2017, paired with an artist chosen by ALL’s curatorial board. She says she will likely show more works from the group shown in this exhibition, which she calls “Unknown Game Series,” as the works explore games, toys, and structural models in “ambiguous” degrees of functionality.


ALL is a nonprofit community arts organization run by volunteer artists and writers, including Roorda (co-founder and Visual Arts Program director), Rita Mae Reese and Angela Voras-Hills (Literary Arts Program co-directors), a board of directors, and other community members. Organized by curatorial board members Simone Doing and Max Puchalsky, Beyond Function is the first juried exhibition hosted at ALL’s Madison location, which had its grand opening in January.

“Fragile II” by Allison Roberts. Photo by Sarah Witman.

“Juried shows are a special event for ALL,” says Madison-based sculptor and designer Jolynne Roorda, who founded another venue with the same name, now closed, in New Haven, Connecticut, in 2003, and decided to revive the project when she moved to Madison. “Most of our exhibitions are curated solo or group shows. Artists are invited to submit proposals for exhibitions, which are reviewed periodically by our curatorial board.”

The primary aim of arts organizations such as ALL is often twofold, says Simpson: to support local artists as well as introduce outside artists to the local community.

“Group shows like this can satisfy both goals,” she says. “They also tend to include a lot of terrific artists who are still under-the-radar and whose work we might not know.”

Hear more about ALL in our January podcast interview with Jolynne Roorda.

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