Chairs Beyond Right & Wrong
A lively exhibition that purposefully blurs the line between artist-made and designer-made pieces.
R & Company, 64 White Street, New York
10th September – 19th October 2019
WHEN IS A chair not just a chair? That’s the question Raquel Cayre proposes to answer in an intriguing new exhibition that explores the possibilities of redefining a familiar object. For ‘Chairs Beyond Right and Wrong’, at R & Company’s gallery in New York City, the collector and curator challenged some 50 artists and designers to consider what a chair could be, independent of its usual form and function. “I didn’t want to do a historic show,” Cayre explains, “I like to break rules.” The result is a provocative array of almost 60 works that intrigue the eye, stimulate the senses, and invite discussion.
Most of the pieces were produced specifically for the exhibition, while others were chosen by Cayre for their originality and divergence from convention. They incorporate a remarkable variety of materials and configurations, though all are recognisable as seating-related forms – even if only a handful would encourage a viewer to sit.
They range in size from Paola Pivi’s globe-shape chandelier formed of miniature Vitra chairs, to Gaetano Pesce’s 7-foot tall rocking seat of fabric-coated resin. The chairs are displayed like sculpture or artworks throughout the gallery: along a pathway of bright blue felt on the upper level, surrounding a table in the mezzanine conference room, and on the walls, floor and a stepped platform on the lower level. Arranged in no specific order, each work stands on its own, without interpretive labels (though the artists are identified on a floor plan distributed at the gallery entrance). “I wanted people to look first, and then judge,” Cayre says.
The contributors to the exhibition are all skilled professionals, known for work in a variety of forms and mediums. They include artists like Urs Fischer, Alex Israel, Paola Pivi, Katherine Bernhardt and Mary Heilmann, and specialists like textile artist Dana Barnes and photographer Heji Shin. A number of them, including Cory Arcangel, Josh Sperling, Reginald Sylvester and Joanne Tatham and Tom O’Sullivan (who designed a piece together), had never before considered making a chair, but relished the opportunity to venture into uncharted waters. On the other hand, design-art stars like Misha Kahn, Rogan Gregory and Katie Stout, were familiar with the form, but were encouraged to escape its usual limitations.
Several of the designs pay homage to seating icons: Al Freeman’s chubby interpretation of Reitveld’s RedBlue chair; Daniel Arsham’s bronze Jeanneret armchair; Martino Gamper’s gold-sprayed take on Thonet; Jordan Wolfson’s bumper-sticker-wrapped Josef Hoffmann chair; and Rob Pruitt’s eight “found” classic chairs covered in colourful fabric tape. And Wade Guyton’s snakelike form of plastic-wrapped tubular steel was made from a deconstructed Marcel Breuer Cesca chair. But the majority of works are quixotic objects drawn from the makers’ imaginations, and there is no discernable difference between artist-made and designer-made pieces. As R & Company principal Evan Snyderman says, “It’s a democratic show. No one knows who’s making what, and it really doesn’t matter.” All but a few are available for purchase, at prices ranging from $200 to a low six figures.
The title of the exhibition refers to the work of interdisciplinary artist Seth Price (a contributor to the show), who believes that a chair is always “something new, something else.” To remind visitors of the research behind her concept, Cayre included a shelf filled with books on the history and study of chairs. “This is definitely a thinking show,” she says.
It is, indeed, although the visitor’s first reaction is pure pleasure at the wit and originality of the designs. The fact that few look comfortable, and several are not sittable at all, does not detract from their initial appeal. On further reflection, however, one wonders why this paradigm of furniture design should try to be more than it already is. Making a chair that is both aesthetically pleasing, style appropriate, and accommodating to the body is more than enough to challenge any designer. The effort to go beyond those parameters shows imaginative thinking, but one might question whether a chair that cannot serve its original purpose can any longer be called a chair; whether in trying to expand its meaning, it has altogether lost it.
Joyce Lin, ‘Exploded Chair’, 2019 (foreground); He-Ji Shin, ‘no title’, 2019 (wall)
COURTESY: R & Company
“The majority of works are quixotic objects drawn from the makers’ imaginations …”
Jordan Wolfson, ‘Untitled’, 2018
COURTESY: R & Company / PHOTGRAPH: Nicole Cohen
“… There is no discernable difference between artist-made and designer-made pieces”
Visitors to the show encounter another exhibition in an alcove just inside the entrance to the gallery, where London designer Ashley Hicks has installed his first American exhibition, a fantasy room that he calls a “Manhattan Studiolo”, a tongue-in-cheek reference to an Italian Renaissance scholar’s retreat. Against a background of walls that he painted to look like abstract panels, on a carpet of his own design, Hicks has furnished the space with colourful pieces that simulate wood, ceramic, glass or stone, but are almost all trompe l’oeil creations of carved and painted epoxy resin. Framed mirrors, occasional tables, and distinctive stacked-up totems compete for attention in what adds up to a tour-de-force of ingenuity and wit. It’s a whimsical, lighthearted space … the antithesis of the chair exhibition, but strong enough to stand up to it.
R & Company – represent a distinguished group of 20th and 21st century designers, whose work is among the most innovative and finely crafted of their time.
‘Chairs Beyond Right and Wrong’ and ‘Manhattan Studiolo’ will both be on view at R & Company until 19th October.