December 12, 1988 12:00 PM

Jacques Carelman has a quirky recipe for offbeat art: Take a commonplace household item, add a dash of Dada, a glint of Magritte, a smidgen of social commentary, a lot of humor…et voilà! An “unfindable object” is born: a beach bucket in the shape of a medieval château; an undulating Ping-Pong table for unpredictable bounces; a remote-control iron for easy-chair ironing; a two-piece Mona Lisa jigsaw puzzle for impatient beginners; a glass-headed hammer; a deck of transparent playing cards.

About 15 years ago these objects were unfindable. But that was before Frenchman Carelman unleashed 380 of his surrealist creations, first in the form of the Catalogue of Unfindable Objects and then in a traveling exhibit, which is now touring through Europe.

“Some people like to hijack planes, mislead conversations or misappropriate funds, but I prefer to divert ordinary objects from their normal uses,” explains the puckish Carelman. “My objects are perfectly useless, the opposite of the gadgets our consumer society is so greedy for. I make people take another look at things that are so familiar they don’t see them anymore. I clean people’s eyes.” Carelman is “profoundly offended” when people consider him an inventor rather than an artist. “My work represents logical absurdity or absurd logic. My objects are materialized dreams.”

Now one of the notions has indeed gone material with the marketing of Spherimat, a not-so-traditional, rounded version of chess. The handsome gift is offered in this year’s Neiman Marcus Christmas catalog for the equally handsome price of $950. Carelman’s contortion of the highbrow game is played on a beech-and-mahogany-checked globe that each player holds while the opponent makes his move. To further complicate the game, new maneuvers have been devised for every piece.

Spherimat is the first commercially available item from Carelman, 59, since he started hammering away at this artistic hobby. Trained as a dental surgeon, Carelman became a full-time painter, sculptor and illustrator in 1963. Six years later he decided to create a parody of a mail-order catalog. After an editor friend offered him a contract, Carelman set to work, and in three months he had put down on paper nearly 200 fantasy consumer items. To his surprise, the book sold 100,000 copies. In the U.S., Carelman’s book is currently in its second edition as The Catalogue of Fantastic Things.

But creating sketches of objects was not enough for Carelman. He wanted to create the articles themselves. By 1972 he had converted 60 of his notions into actual three-dimensional objects, displaying them at the Louvre’s Museum of Decorative Arts. The show was critically acclaimed, and it received more raves when it crossed the Atlantic for exhibition in Dallas and New York City. Carelman was then encouraged to expand his show to nearly 200 pieces, but turning the ideas into reality was no easy task. “I took the drawings to craftsmen, and they said I was completely crazy,” he says. “Fortunately, I’m a bit of an intellectual and a bit of a handyman, so I made the objects myself.”

Over the years Carelman has gradually expanded his collection. If he’s not working on the hieroglyphic typewriter for Egyptologists, then he’s busy suspending the independent hammock, held up by balloons. The 10-ton show has traveled all over Europe, as well as to Canada three times and once to Japan. Carelman groups his objects in imaginary categories: absurd, amusing, philosophical, poetic, puerile, grotesque, ridiculous. His favorite object is the whistle for deaf dogs(it lights up when you blow it), “because my dog is 16½ and going deaf.” Some of his “black humor” objects, such as the portable crucifix with folding crossbar, were omitted from the show for fear of public outrage.

Carelman can’t explain why his work is so admired. “In spite of myself, I touched something,” he says. “For one thing, you don’t need to be cultured to get the humor. Children react the best, intellectuals second best. For kids, I’m like an uncle who’s not an authority figure, but who takes you out to play on Sundays and lets you do what you’re not allowed to do.”

When he was a child, Carelman says, he always loved to draw. The eternal Peter Pan lists his artistic influences as, “Walt Disney, then when I was a little older, Michelangelo.” But as he grew up in Marseilles, his father, a salesman, and his mother, a housewife, urged him to select a more rooted career, like dentistry. In 1956 he moved to Paris, where he transformed his avocation into his vocation. Born with a “fascination for bizarre objects,” Carelman took it as a “sign of God” when one day in 1972, he found a wine glass with a bent stem in the street near his house. It promptly found its place in the collection as a drinking glass for the bedridden or for long-muzzled dogs. “Objects call to me,” he declares. “Amazing, no?”

In addition to his unfindable objects, Carelman has also illustrated books, designed theater sets and playground equipment, and he is currently working on sculpture with a human rights theme. He says he leads “an ordinary life.” He and his wife of 28 years, Bella, a former radio executive, and their aging dachshund, Virgule, live in a small apartment in the Montmartre section of Paris. Although commercialization of his objects could bring him more fame and increased fortune, he remains ambivalent about shining in the public limelight. “I don’t want to see my creations mass-produced and reduced to mere gadgets that can be bought,” he says.

Carelman is leaving the future of his chess set or any other salable item up to fate. His rationale for marketing the set: It can only fall into the right hands. “People who play chess are crazy anyhow,” he says with a knowing smile.

—Mary Huzinec, and Cathy Nolan in Paris

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