Contemporary New England Furniture

Gallery NAGA/Boston

(Originally published in Art New England, Volume 9 Number 6, June 1988.)

New England is now the center of an extraordinary flourishing of traditional crafts, especially furniture, because some very talented artists have turned to crafts as a way out of the cynical and cerebral “endgame” that so much contemporary art is playing today. They are willing to honor the crafts’ structural limitations and established forms in order to play with color, form, and style without re-inventing the wheel each time they stand before a blank piece of paper or a block of wood. Because what they are making is “just a chair,” it’s unencumbered by the burdens of being a contemporary “work of art.”

Artists making furniture have chosen not to create something to put up on a pedestal, but to make things for people to live with in their daily lives. They feel that making things by hand keeps something personal and deeply human in a world increasingly dominated by machines. Artists making furniture point out that the language of furniture is the language of the human body – arms and legs, hands and feet. The light from a series of lamps designed by Tom Loeser with Charles Crowley is gentle; their scale is human. These lamps look like good companions for a dark evening. Loeser speaks of wanting to make things “for people to bring into their homes, to bring into their lives.”  This approach to art goes back to the Bauhaus and the early years of modern art – the ambition to bring the concerns of art into the making of ordinary, useful objects, and thus to bring a new kind of beauty into daily life. And back much farther than that to the very origins of art – making and decorating the things that people live with every day.

Artists’ furniture frankly offers pleasure – both of looking and of touching – but it can have a dark or tragic side as well. Alphonse Mattia’s exquisitely crafted furniture often speaks of the discontents of civilization and of living in the modern world. The thin black back of his Twisted Chair seems to wring its hands in anguish. Design tension becomes physical tension – a pain in the neck, a knot in the shoulders, but still presenting a surface that’s perfectly polished and poised.

Judy Kensley McKie’s glass table has a base of carved black animals who chase each other in an endless circle, like the Jungian symbol of a snake biting its tail. Like real animals, their beauty suggests a mythic, sometimes frightening power.

Judy McKie, Monkey Cahir 1994

They speak their own separate language, and remind us of what the philosopher Wittgenstein said: “If lions could talk, we would not understand them.”

Stephen Whittlesey makes chests of drawers from pieces of wood salvaged from shipwrecks. They convey the image of the artist as a kind of Robinson Crusoe, marooned in his studio and trying to recreate what he remembers of Western civilization from the scraps of wood he finds on the beach. His furniture seems to yearn for a perfectly ordered world that’s lost forever – perhaps a happy childhood, perhaps the classical language of art.

Each of these artists making furniture uses the traditional forms of the craft – analogues to what Robert Lowell in a late poem calls “those blessed structures, plot and rhyme.” They draw their strength from keeping their feet on the ground, like the mythical Greek giant Antaeus, who was as strong as a god only as long as he could touch the Earth. The “blessed structures” root them in reality, setting the limits that allow imagination to fly free.

by Rebecca Nemser for

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