Unsettling In

Unsettling In

We have expectations of our furniture: that it will be comfortable, sturdy, beautiful, useful. But if the underlying concept were “perverted”—“turned away from what is right or good; corrupt; improper; incorrect” as Merriam-Webster has it—what might that look and feel like?

Artspace’s Perverse Furniture, a new exhibition on view through June 29, strives to show us. A few of the works on display are actual pieces of furniture, among them Bob Gregson’s Back Talk (2017, partially pictured above). This oversized double rocking chair, with back-to-back seats and high sides that block the sitter’s view, feels a little bit like a backwards seesaw. To complicate the playful structure, a rearview mirror is attached to the side of each seat, above head level. You can adjust this to see the face of the person sitting at your back, or yourself, or even the ceiling. In one of several artist’s “manifestos” accompanying the exhibition, Gregson mentions the importance of humor in art, itself arguably a form of “perversity.” Whether you find sitting in Back Talk “fun,” as one visitor did, or “very discomfiting,” as another did, will no doubt dictate how you “talk back” to the work itself.

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NHdocs 2019 - May 30 to June 9

Other pieces in Perverse Furniture resemble furniture without being literally usable. Sit (2016) by Juliana Cerqueira Leite tells us exactly what we’re supposed to imagine doing with her hydrocal, steel and pigment sculpture. The pink and yellow chair oozes and melts like frosting, its crouching, insectile legs struggling to hold itself up. You may find your own quads sympathetically burning. This perverted chair’s back bears the imprint of three pairs of breasts and a belly. Perhaps they’re simply impressions of the sort a sitter leaves behind on an upholstered seat, but they raise the possibility that we, ourselves, may actually be the furniture. How often have we supported someone else’s body? When is that burden too heavy to bear?

Still other works stretch the definition of “furniture” itself. Jessi Reaves’s Night Cabinet (Little Miss Attitude) (2016) is a human-sized wood and steel sculpture zipped into a form-fitting brown silk bodysuit with a coppery shimmer. As with Sit, questions arise: Is it furniture? Is it a reflection of us? The suit is both crudely stitched, evoking a monster assembled in a 19th-century laboratory, and ingeniously constructed to hug every fin and flap, or breast and hip, of the strange figure it hides.

Esteban Ramón Pérez’s two wall hangings—Los Alacrenes (2018) and Star Spangled (2019)—make a different set of impressions. Particularly remarkable is Spangled, a tattered 11’x11’ scrap quilt with stray threads hanging from four needle-sharp poles. Large scraps of leather are sewn to cotton and polyester, and the remnants of an American flag—cut-out stars, shreds of white stripes—are incorporated into the design along with a pair of boxing glove liners. The effect is both light and defiant, a reimagined, reworked and improvised version of the American flag more indicative of real struggle than of any romantic, patriotic ideal. It suggests a hard-fought life stitched together from different bits of self. Pérez, whose father is a professional upholsterer, lists the sources of some of the “iconography” of his work as “Mexicanismo, south western landscapes, cholo attire, lowriders, Mexican blankets, indigenous American textiles, pre-Columbian art, Mexican catholic baroque, Mexican blackletter, quilting, and American art histories.”

Co-curated by Artspace gallery director Sarah Fritchey and New Haven architect/artist Aude Jomini, Perverse Furniture brings together the work of 17 artists in all, working in sculpture, photography, video, tapestry, painting, drawing, performance and, of course, furniture construction. But it also addresses the city of New Haven as a “scaled up” version of artistic ideals perhaps gone “perverse” themselves. The show was created with the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Bauhaus movement in mind, and it includes an exhibit curated by New Haven Museum historian Jason Bischoff-Wurstle that examines how Bauhaus “design principles, utopian philosophies and promise of new beginnings have played out… in New Haven.”

Founded in Germany in 1919 by Walter Gropius, the Bauhaus school marked a “radical break” with traditional architecture, embracing a “new and universal formal language for architecture by means of abstraction; denial of symmetry, ornament, and representation; and explicitly visual references to the technical building process,” a footnote in the Artspace description states. Bauhaüslers in exile from Nazi Germany influenced New Haven’s architecture and played a role in the city’s urban renewal of the 1950s and ’60s, “filling in bulldozed and reorganized sections of the city, … often times with little to no community buy-in.”

How we conceive of our spaces and their components—whether interior, populated by furniture, or exterior, populated by buildings—is a primary concern of Perverse Furniture. Meredith James’s video Mobius City (2015) meets this issue head-on. A young woman stands at the window of her New York City apartment holding a glass of water. The camera pans back from her to the cityscape, and we’re transported into a flattened world in which everything seems either computer-generated or made of cardboard. When the real meets the virtual, it becomes much more difficult to compartmentalize the two.

Something similar happens when the present meets the past. Displayed under glass, a yardstick emblazoned with “Chamberlain’s Furniture” points to the earlier life of Artspace’s Orange Street home. In the 19th century, the building was none other than a furniture factory.

Perverse Furniture
Artspace – 50 Orange St, New Haven (map)
Wed-Sat noon-6pm through June 29
(203) 772-2709

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Image features detail of Bob Gregson’s Back Talk.

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