A New Show — and a New Location — for Superhouse is Allowing Stephen Markos to Think Big

For the last few years, Stephen Markos has consistently been commanding our attention with the shows at his Manhattan gallery Superhouse. At the nexus of contemporary design, ’80s art furniture, and craft, Superhouse has given us Kim Mupangilaï’s beautifully deep debut collection, Howard Meister’s now semi-viral chairs, Shaina Tabak’s incredible woodworks, and Sean Gerstley’s puzzle-like ceramic furniture — to name a few. It all started in 2021, when Markos began operating out of a tiny space on the second floor of a mall in Chinatown. “The motivating factor was the dearth of functional art or art furniture on view in the city at that time,” he says. “There are hundreds of fine art galleries, but only a handful of design galleries. I wanted to change that, at least in some small way.” But Superhouse is not quite so small these days: After a recent move several blocks west to 120 Walker Street, the gallery now has both a larger footprint and more potential.

It’s fitting that Paa Joe’s Celestial City is the inaugural show in the expanded space. Not only because the Ghanaian sculptor’s work spans art and design, but because it speaks to a certain aesthetic conversation between the present and the past that Superhouse has been participating in — a contemporary revival of an early ’80s aesthetic, kind of Postmodern, occasionally mixed with Warholian commercial iconography. It sparks thoughts on how we interact with brands and the commodification of just about everything, but it’s also… fun.

“I had been a fan of Paa’s work for quite some time,” says Markos. “I am attracted to function, and I love how his sculptures, while not furniture, have a function.” Paa Joe has been carving and painting figurative coffins since the ’60s. He’s a second-generation maker of abebu adekai, or fantasy coffins. These custom vessels, also called proverb boxes, are meant to honor and memorialize something significant about the deceased. Paa Joe’s coffins might take the form of a chili pepper, a fish, a Nike sneaker, or a Mercedes-Benz. The human-size coffins and smaller containers currently up at Superhouse, through April 26, are distinctly New York in their imagery, icons of the city, including the Statue of Liberty, a yellow taxi, a big apple, a hot dog and a giant bottle of ketchup, a bagel, the Guggenheim, the New York Times, and of course, a rat (or, possibly, Pizza Rat, when placed near the pizza box in a trash can).

Markos connected with Paa’s son and collaborator Jacob over social media and the ideas for a show started flowing. “There is a tension between simplicity and complexity in the work,” says Markos, explaining why it fascinates him. “Paa can utilize simple materials — local wood, generic enamel paint, gravel from his studio floor — and techniques (rarely are preparatory drawings for a piece made) to create clever representations of everyday objects, foodstuffs, portraits, and architecture. They all have a sense of celebration, even when representing humble things, which goes back to their original intent – to glorify the deceased and celebrate their life.”

It’s not surprising that Markos relates to that sense of celebration, because it’s something of a through line in the exhibitions at Superhouse. And it’s an ethos behind Markos’s curatorial approach, which looks back, but it isn’t backward-looking; instead, it’s about discovery and recontextualization of the past in the current moment. Markos traces this to growing up in New England, amid old houses, antiques, and flea markets that instilled an appreciation for pieces of history and how we interact with them now.

“I am particularly interested in America’s Functional Art and Studio Craft movements,” he says. “I see a lot of similarities between what artists and designers are doing today — what their references are, how they make the work, themes that they explore in their work — and these movements.” Functional art, like that of Wendell Castle and Vivian Beer, combined fine art processes with utility, while studio craft, as practiced by George Nakashima, Sam Maloof, Ruth Duckworth, or Wharton Esherick, could be seen as a post-WWII rejection of mechanization and embrace of the handmade. “While in the ’80s and ’90s, the functional art and studio craft rarely mixed — being shown at separate galleries and in separate museum exhibitions — today, I see artists blending fine craftsmanship with aesthetic and conceptual approaches,” says Markos. “I like to bring them all together under one roof to create new dialogues.”

Now that the roof itself is bigger, the scope of those dialogues can really grow. “My hope for 120 Walker Street is to provide greater opportunities for the artists and designers I work with – both in terms of the type of works they can exhibit, and the scale,” he says. In addition to the exhibition schedule, Markos plans to host talks, screenings, and other events to engage the art and design community. Stay tuned!

Installation photos by Brian W. Ferry / object photos by Luis Corzo / Paa Joe portrait by Jacob Tetteh-Ashong