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Think of the knick-knacks that so often clutter your bookshelf. Those are what Todd Levin may have thought about while guest-curating the recent exhibition at The Curator’s Office. “An Architect’s Dream” is anchored by a Joseph Cornell assemblage; he’s the creative benefactor of the three living artists featured. Cornell’s works are tiny stages and dreamscapes, often incorporating references to birds and navigation. Some are intended to be held, letting viewers hear the composition. Unfortunately, that level of play is missing from the works of the other artists.

So is Cornell’s level of intimacy—though Pipilotti Rist’s work does require that the living flowers change weekly. Her shelf is pedestrian, containing the sort of household objects mindlessly set down while multitasking: solvent, rocks, a shuttlecock. A video of a person arranging flowers is projected from a watering can onto the side of the flower vase. The video and the subtle visual puns between objects express the duality of a shelf: presentation versus that place where stuff ends up.

Presentation is key for Haim Steinbach’s precisely manufactured shelf. The two objects on it were bought in a store, not made by Steinbach, and suffer a unique symptom of contemporary industrial design: Their attractiveness supersedes their function. The discarded Buck Rogers prop is actually a Philippe Stark juicer, and the stack of black rubber blobs is a chew toy. Bone, shoe, sofa…dogs don’t care what a chew toys looks like, only that it fits in their mouths. As a result, the design is lost on the dogs. Absent of its context, the purpose of the object is lost on the rest of us. Whether inspired by Botero or Brancussi, the more incoherent the function, the greater the likelihood the object will be possessed for its aesthetic, going from store shelf to your shelf.

Meaning, not aesthetic, is what’s key for Rashid Johnson. Johnson constructed a shrine to jazz musician Archie Shepp in which four shelves containing Shepp’s album Montreaux Two protrude from mirrored tiles. The album is flanked by a book called Run. Beneath the album is an oyster filled with shea butter, an oblique reference to a Zora Neale Hurston essay. In places, the mirror tiles are shattered and splattered with black paint. The shrine to Shepp becomes a shrine to the viewer, or perhaps the artist. It’s a self-reflective meditation on a fragmented identity faced with the cultural contributions of less prominent, but no less talented, African-Americans.

The concept for the exhibition seems simple enough: shelves, the stuff placed atop, extracting meaning from the stuff. The shelves don’t have to be dreamscapes. They don’t even have to be touched. But a symptom of being American is that we all have stuff. Perhaps we should consider the stuff we have, and how it is displayed.

The exhibition is on view Wed.-Sat., 12 p.m. to 6 p.m. to June 30 at the Curator’s Office, 1515 14th Street NW, #201. Free.