COMFORT, CHAIRNESS AND THE ANTHROPOCENE
Thesis submitted in partial fulfillment of requirements
for the degree of Master of Fine Art
by Joanne April Tepper Saffren
Low Residency MFA
School of the Art Institute of Chicago
Thesis Committee Advisor
Corrine E. Fitzpatrick, Lecturer, SAIC
On January 1, 2018, I walked to my neighboring lake and found the entire shore covered with a layer of tangled tree limbs. This uncanny site was the result of California’s extreme and exceptional drought, 2012-2017, which caused over 135 million tree deaths. I began making chairs from the tree limbs and, in the process of my art practice, I started thinking about the connection between comfort and the anthropocene. Designing and crafting functional chairs, along with my design practice history, also led to a discussion on the modernist divide between high art and functional design through an engagement of thinkers like Clement Greenberg. I also introduce artists Donald Judd, Jessi Reaves, Mary Heilmann and others into this discussion.
I dedicate my thesis to the millions of trees who lost their lives to the California drought, and who continue to inspire my practice. 4
My desire to give and receive comfort has led to a deeper examination of the ambiguously rich concepts surrounding the word comfort. Comfort is both a survival necessity and a culprit in our anthropocentric destruction. It makes us feel good, highlights what is lacking, and fuels an insatiable desire for more.
Six months ago, I began making cushioned pillow wall paintings, which led to cushioned seats and functional chairs as vehicles for further inquiry. My personal stigmas surrounding design, craft, and usefulness as inferior to the hegemonic category of high art soon haunted this exploration. This thesis will follow my process while I investigate my way through the concepts of comfort, chairness and the anthropocene through my practice, and while I make work for my thesis installation.
• • •
January 1, 2018: I awoke to the sound of my inside voice broadcasting an internal New Year’s to-do list stuck in repeat mode. I strolled to the neighboring lake to meditate and capture my thoughts on paper. What I discovered was uncanny. The entire shore was covered by a layer of tangled tree limbs, broken roots, trunks and delicate branches.
I live in California by Folsom Lake, a reservoir on the American River in the Sierra Nevada foothills. I felt broken by the devastation of plant life — an ecological result of California’s latest extreme and exceptional drought from 2012-2017. Flooding rains ended the drought and carried thousands of dead trees from the sierra forest down the American River, where they were captured by Folsom Dam. Over 135 million trees lost their lives to this anthropocentric phenomenon. This loss of life connected me to the strangeness of my own mortality, the loss of my dad, and a desire to reclaim what was reclaimable. 5
The bizarre reality of this landscape roused my curiosity, as well as my desire to gather and bring home carloads of limbs. Could the anthropocentric concepts ingrained in the wood materials be intertwined with notions of chairs and comfort?
• • •
Over the past two years, I have become increasingly sensitive to my environment and the effects of my own human-centric definition of comfort. Consciously modulating the temperature in my home and using cloth towels instead of paper. This sympathy has led me to follow several philosophers whose ontological thinking points away from humans as the supreme rulers of the universe, and toward a kinder, interconnected, interspecies world in which hierarchies of objects are non-existent. In this world, objects are defined as everything including humans, animals, furniture, artificial plants, ideas and dust. In an online lecture titled Being Ecological, Philosopher Timothy Morton proposes that all objects exist as particles on a giant mesh where every point is the center.
Anthropocentrism, a world created by humans for humans, has desensitized us from the needs of our environment, geology, climate, and each other. The creative concepts that battle Kantian thinking are stemming from “Object Oriented Philosophy”, a movement founded by philosopher Graham Harman. Harman and others often refer to the scientific findings that we are all essentially made from the same dust and share our DNA with bananas and daffodils (Oral). Instead of thinking about humans and the world, thinking about objects and relations could solve many global issues. My connections to the battered limbs partially stems from this altered thinking about these relational objects, and all the ways they highlight my own harmful effect on the world.6
PART 1: ART, DESIGN AND CRAFT
Clement Greenberg’s critical voice was influential when I was in art school in the 1970s, and his ideas surrounding art, function, and design have stayed with me far too long — overshadowing my work as a designer by lessening its importance. To Greenberg, art is reserved for painting void of decoration, or it is achieved by transcending the decorative and that the experience of art must be purely visual (Auther). Greenberg asserted that if it functions, if it refers to anything decorative or domestic, if it shows skill, it is perceived as lacking in meaning and is not art.
Glenn Adamson,1 a contemporary curator, writer and historian, argues that Greenberg’s model is no longer relevant. Adamson takes the discussion of craft, design and art in another direction. A direction he discusses from a historical
Peter Voulkos, Sevillanas, 1959
Lenore Tawney, Lekythos, 1962 7
perspective that begins with the arts and crafts movement in the late 19th Century. During the British industrial revolution, the number of workers classified as high-quality craftsmen began to decline. You no longer went to a skilled shoemaker who created a custom pair of shoes that would last a lifetime. Instead, you went to a shoe store that offered a selection of shoes from many manufacturers at a fraction of the cost. The anxieties surrounding industrial life fueled a societal fear of losing hand craftsmanship. Skills that were considered to be the ideal of triumphant humanity and thus needed to be preserved. This led to the formation of the ethically charged Arts and Crafts movement. Arts and Crafts designers walled off their honed skills to protect them from modernity and other disciplines.
The separation of art and craft began to dissolve during the mid-twentieth century with the rise of the American Crafts movement and the ideals of Black Mountain College. Fine artists began exploring mediums associated with craft. Peter Voulkos worked with clay to create expressionistic vessels, Lenore Tawney made experimental tapestries, and Wendell Castle made abstract wood forms that were also functional as furniture, to name a few (Adamson).
Today, we are in a post-disciplinary era, when categories are vanishing and there is a highly increased awareness of consciousness. An artist can use multiple materials as vehicles for expression, such as painting, film, dance, fashion design, or architecture. They can make a painting one day and a film the next. Craft is no longer walled off from art. According to Adamson, it is a term used to describe what it means to be skilled. Craft is now increasingly relevant and present across a wide range of disciplines. We often gain wisdom in a manner that is experiential. We learn and discover with our hands, which send knowledge to our brain, and signal refinements back to our hands in a nonlinguistic feedback loop. Craft is and has always been essential to all creative practices and rarely stands alone 8
(LDSOA). And yet, as I read current reviews on artists working with these materials, the question of function and fine art remains. Critics will define an artwork as non-functional or write that it avoids the pitfalls of function.
Art is Not in My Hands
I grew up in a family of makers, with a shared belief that mechanical tools were extensions of our hands and enhancements to our bodies. Using my hands with skill and precision was always important. My maternal grandfather was a dressmaker, who had a small dress shop in Brooklyn during the Depression, where he designed and sewed dresses for a dollar and sold them for two. In Los Angeles, he worked as a dressmaker for Ohrbach’s and a union representative for the International Ladies Garment Workers Union. My mom taught me to sew at an early age and, in high school, my grandfather helped me to design my own sewing patterns and clothes.
Tools, like good scissors, were coveted gifts. My dad used his hands to build us a house, a cabin, and a boat in his spare time. He also handmade birthday cards and comic books. We all played musical instruments, and my siblings and I took painting classes. For two years, while in high school, I worked for my dad in his engineering firm. Here is where I learned the meaning of the word precision. My job was to hand print the type specifications on vellum. Each letter was 3/16” high, all caps, with 1/16” between the lines of type. I also learned to draw a straight evenly ruled line, up to 60” in length, by simultaneously twirling the pencil as I pulled it against a parallel bar. These drafting skills transitioned into freelance graphic design work, long before the computer, while an undergraduate in painting and printmaking at Otis Art Institute. 9
Upon graduation from Otis in 1978, I started a design practice in Venice California. It was located in the old Gas Company building behind the Rose Cafe. Back then, graphic design was crafted from art materials. Designers hand drew type, illustrations, logos, and fine line borders with India ink. Comprehensives were photographically rendered with markers and photos were retouched with an airbrush. I took classes at Art Center College of Design to fill in the gaps from my fine arts education. Graphic designers worked with the precision of a surgeon using a ruling pen and an exacto knife with a #11 blade as their scalpel. I also sewed my own wedding dress and designed and built the home I live in.
A close friend warned, “Don’t sell everything you’re worth!”2 These five words kept me experimenting with alternate forms of making while working as a graphic designer, art director, and design educator until 2012. Commissioned art, in the form of design, was creative, concept based, and challenging, but limited my creative freedom and it never felt right. I searched for loopholes in order to expand the creative parameters of every project. I attached shame to my design work and felt embarrassed by my success, especially when talking to artist friends who had not ‘sold out.’ The design awards, and other professional accolades, highlighted the insignificance of this work into which I poured so much of my creative self.
I have reclaimed my creativity and I am grateful for the knowledge I have gained, through the Low Residency Master of Fine Arts program at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. A program that keeps my thoughts surrounding art, making work and authenticity, questioning how I see the world and how I visualize my voice.
• • • 10
April 8, 2018 3 am: Startled awake by an internal ricocheting debate. Graphic design work made my humanness invisible and the disconnect wore me down and burned me out. Stripping away the overlaid idealism of perfection, I teeter the line between sloppiness and attention while I struggle with concepts of virtue.
6 am: The word editing in this thesis writing is becoming a veil for all my work. What do I smooth out for the sake of communication? How visible is my imperfect, messy, and blemished humanness?
• • • 11
PART 2: THE MEDIUM IS THE MESSAGE
Through history, the woman’s hand in art has been barely visible. Partly because female creativity, visualized through domestic crafts, were not respected. The label of craft became an ethical system of classification that marginalized and dismissed the artwork of women around the world. The beautiful studies of Anni Albers in abstraction through weaving were not part of the same conversation as her husband, Josef Albers’, paintings.
In the 1970s, female feminist artists struggled to legitimize traditional female domestic creativity as art. These artists introduced content based on the lives of women into modern art using hand sewn, embroidered, quilted, crochet, and woven arts as their materials. In 1971, Judy Chicago and Miriam Shapiro
Womanhouse, Los Angeles 1972, Robin Weltsch, Kitchen with Vicki Hodgetts’s, Eggs to Breasts and Faith Wilding, Womb Room12
co-founded the feminists’ art program at Cal Arts, and, together with their students, turned a large old abandoned Victorian mansion into an art environment called “Womanhouse.” Judy Chicago explained, “women had been embedded in houses for centuries and had quilted, sewed, baked, cooked, decorated, and nested their creative energies away. What would happen, we wondered, if women took those very same homemaking activities and carried them to fantasy proportions?” (Gerhard). Each room was transformed to hold a different story of feminine domestic life. Among them, there was a “Menstruation Bathroom” painted pristine white, except for a single trash can overflowing with bloodied tampons — materials symbolic of puberty and shame. A “Nurturant Kitchen” with walls and ceiling covered in forms that started as eggs, and gradually transformed into breasts, as well as a crocheted room that resembled a primitive womb shelter.
According to Chicago, “we discovered that throughout the world and from the earliest moments in history, women were the universal civilizers. They seeded the earth, built homes, decorated and humanized their environments, ordered their nests, educated their families, and provided a pattern of stable living” (Shapiro). The isolation of women in the home had kept female artists marginalized, and the brave feminists of the 1970s gave a voice to the experiences of these women, as well as traditional ways of working.
These artists experimented by combining paint and contemporary art materials with everyday female domestic textiles, using the materials to voice their concepts. They created a bridge between art and domestic craft that merges aesthetics and function. The full listing of all the artists who contributed to Womanhouse is provided in the Notes.3 I am saddened and amazed that we are still dealing with many of these same issues today. 13
Impeccable craft, smooth functioning, and good design all erase traces of their maker. The greater the knowledge in the makers creative hands, the more invisible they become. We do not notice the hand knitting in a sweater until it begins to unravel. As long as the object is crafted well, and functions as we expect it to, the hand of its maker remains invisible.
Anne Wilson’s Local Industry (2010), was a living installation and performance at the Knoxville Museum of Art. Wilson turned the museum into a conceptual space in which weaving was used to talk about the skilled hand of the weaver, not seen by consumers, and the outsourced jobs in the textile industry. During the museum’s open hours, 2100 experienced and 79 non-experienced weavers worked together to make one piece of cloth. Museum guests participated by spinning the thread for the weaving. The warp on the loom remained the same, each weaver could choose the weft colors. When viewing the culminating 75 foot long cloth, each weavers voice can be seen in the colors they chose (Wilson).
Anne Wilson, Local Industry, 2010
Cornelia Parker, Anti-Mass, 200514
Like Anne Wilson, artist Cornelia Parker also focuses on concepts inherent in her materials. On several occasions, I have experienced Cornelia Parker’s powerful work titled Anti-Mass (2005) at the de Young Museum in San Francisco. Parker created a monumental cube that ethereally floats in space made from the charred wood remains of a Southern Baptist church that was destroyed by arsonists. The work uses creativity to rise above violence in a way that evokes quiet reflection (Parker). The inherent concept of this work and the charred wood materials are intertwined and inseparable.
At first sight, the driftwood from the lake, was unfamiliar and it all looked similar. I had no basis to make decisions on what wood to haul to my car. As I began inspecting and lifting the sticks, a familiarity grew, and with it an intuitive sense of what I was searching for. At home, I laid the wood out on my back porch and we spent days communing. I held each limb in my arms, becoming conscious of its weight, diameter, length, grain, twists, and individual characteristics. I am not familiar with tree species. A few were unexpectedly heavy and denser, with many rings showing their long life within a relatively small diameter. Others were unexpectedly light and soft enough to make a dent into them with my finger. Many had voids in their structure from decay and destroying insects, as well as their battered ride down the American River. Some pieces smelled like incense, while others smelled so awful I wore a respirator to work with them.
What was it about seeing the dead trees parts around my lake that triggered my need to make art out of them? Was it a nurturing response to save the trees from their abandonment? Did I want to hush my frightening concerns surrounding the anthropocene and our surreal directives from our current 15
anti-environmental protection agency? Was it the sight of neglected death signaling my own temporality? Perhaps my familial bond to trees has something to do with the many memories I have enmeshed with them.
Trees connect the earth to the sky. They are protectors that seed the earth, hold its water, give us breath, stimulate our senses, and absorb the carbon we produce. They also produce shelter in the form of shade and materials for building.
Photographer, Sebastião Salgado, PhD, gave a Ted Talk in 2013 about the rainforest in his home country. Salgado observed that 50% of Brazil used to be covered in rain forests, while today, over 90% of those forests are deserts, due to the lucrative business of cattle farming. When Salgado inherited his family’s farm, he planted more than 2 million trees and turned the desert back into a rainforest in only three years (Salgado).
Our forests are the only factories that turn carbon into oxygen. Every day, each large tree lifts over 100 gallons of water out of the ground and discharges
Folsom Lake California, January 1, 201816
it into the air creating a day’s worth of oxygen for four people, and absorbs 48 pounds of carbon dioxide per year (“Tree Facts”). Not harming the trees we have, and planting more trees, is fundamental to helping offset our anthropocentric environmental dilemma.
• • •
I needed to know what was happening to the millions of dead trees. I discovered that the Sacramento Urban Tree Foundation was logging many of the trees, and opened a mill on April 29th of this year. I also found an amazing place called Aborica, located near Petaluma. I called, and the owner, Evan Shively, invited me to visit. Curiously, he emailed me a long list of turn by turn directions instead of a google map link. As I was driving through the mountains and cattle ranches between Petaluma and the Pacific coast, sharing the narrow road with logging trucks in my compact car, I became weary when I realized there was no cell service and had to pull off the road to read the driving instructions at every crossing. Aborica, the mecca of wood, is the leading reclaimed-wood mill in California and Evan Shively is considered a wood guru among artists, architects, and designers.4
Aborica showroom, Marshall California, March 10, 201817
First, Evan led me to his showroom where the walls were lined with massive and beautifully polished slabs of reclaimed tree species lined. In the center of the room, massive slabs were stacked horizontally like dining table tops. We then walked through his wood sanctuary. Our conversation was informal but enlightening, and his brilliance led me to ask if I could tape our talk. When I asked about all the dead trees he said that most consider dead wood to have no recognized value. Shively explained,
As of last year, there was ten times the annual timber harvest in California of standing dead in the sierra forest, totaling 10 billion board feet. Most of that is in the pines and headed back to the earth. There’s nothing wrong with that but we should not be cutting down a healthy tree without utilizing what has died. It’s ungrateful.
David Nash, Black Sphere, 201318
Every couple of months, Shively heads to the Sierras to save a few dead trees that are too beautiful to be left to rot, or milled into baseboards. I was struck by his saddened look when he observed that wood is always in remembrance mourning. He then handed me a book by his good friend David Nash to look through and returned to his chores. David Nash, a British sculptor and land artist, has been working with whole tree trunks and limbs since 1973. He uses hand tools and heavy equipment to morph trees into unexpected shapes. I am struck by the poetry of his work and his insights surrounding nature. He states that when wood is in nature it is either growing and becoming or decaying and leaving. Bringing the wood inside, the leaving process is slowed so it stays around a little longer. Nash also chars the wood to naturally seal and protect it, reviving its dormant faith with new growth (Lynton and Nash). Nash works with wet wood and thinks of the crack and warps that appear over time as natures finish. He lets the woods natural aging processes engage in the making of their work.
After spending time with monumental tree slabs and logs, I realized the overwhelming power they exude was due to their massive size and scale in relationship to my own. At home, looking at my diminutive tree fragments, I realized these would not project the awe I felt standing amidst the Aborica tree monuments. Perhaps it was the frailty of these broken branches that asked for salvaging. Their projected story would not be monumental and awe inspiring, but instead their human scaled proportions might project a leveling of hierarchies.
Working with nature is always an inquiry and together we began a shared language with neither having complete control. My process was about discovery and gaining new wisdom through our experiential connection. Our dialogue of understanding grew as I chiseled and cut a few naturally curved branches into human idealized cylindrical and square forms. 19
PART 3: WHAT IS A CHAIR?
Chairs are a part of our everyday life. They evoke memories of family dinners, school, and socializing. They have offered comfort for over 5,000 years. The earliest representation of chairs appears in Greek sculpture around 3,000 B.C.E. At the Metropolitan Museum of Art, there’s an Egyptian chair, dated 1450 B.C.E., belonging to the scribe Reniseneb. The chair was created specifically for Reniseneb’s human frame. The back of this chair is hand incised with a carving of the scribe seated on the identical chair form.
The Chair is a Body
Chairs are uniquely anthropomorphic. They are the only furniture whose form is entirely based on the dimensions and curves of the human body. The legs, arms, back, and seat are attuned to our own. I am exploring the uniqueness of chairs, and the design that bonds us to them in a phenomenological way no other inanimate object is capable of doing.
Hard minimalist chairs align with our cold detached digital world, while soft, upholstered chairs that beg to be used, are easily warn down and reflect their temporal nature. Chairs are vessels for holding humans, animals and books. They are placeholders for indecision. They give us the expectation of a normal experience. Domestic chairs represent an ideal — time to read, relax,
Chair of Reniseneb, 1450 B.C.E.20
and recuperate from the world’s demands. Chairs provide a designated place to contemplate, muse and entertain. Chairs are democratic – they are everywhere.
In Plato’s Republic, Book 1, 360 B.C.E., Plato uses the chair to explain the true essence of justice and good (Plato). Actual chairs come and go, but the form of the chair, the essence of what exists if all chairs were to be destroyed, is its chairness. For this to be possible, the form of the chair must exist somewhere apart from any particular chair, and apart from any person’s idea of an actual chair. Because actual chairs are made of materials, they are less perfect than the form of chair, which does not come into or pass out of existence. So, the form of chairness cannot exist in the world of becoming. It exists in the world of pure being — a world that is more perfect than the material world. The form is superior
Donald Judd, A Good Chair is a Good Chair, 198921
to a particular thing or any mental image of that thing because it is perfect and because it doesn’t cease to be. Plato held that the highest good must be eternal and separate from the physical world, like the concept of chairness (“Plato”).
Donald Judd talks about chairness in another way that also challenges it as an art object. He asserts that, “The chair exists as a chair itself. And the idea of chair isn’t a chair … The art of a chair is not it’s resemblance to art, but is partly it’s reasonableness, usefulness and scale as a chair” (Judd). Judd’s belief is that the essence of a chair’s value is its usefulness as a chair. While Plato talks about the chairness not existing in the world of actual chairs but instead as an example of something eternal and separate from the physical world, Judd brings the chair down to earth by stating that the value of a chair is solely its usefulness as a chair. 22
PART 4: CHAIRS AS CHAIRS AND AS SCULPTURES
Last year, at the Whitney Biennial, I was surprised to find chairs calling attention to themselves. They were compelling, warm, and projected a kind of charisma. They were not made to disappear into the framework of the institution, like other gallery furniture. They domesticated and destabilized the viewing space with the warmth they exuded through their signs of human crafted imperfection. They functioned as both an art object, and an art experience for viewing other art (Barry). In a conversation with architect Gaetano Pesce for MOCA, Reaves states,
If something is functional it’s not always practical. Sometimes when I’m working I like to... take all of the practicality out of an object and then try to put it back in. Even if the function isn’t as generous, there’s something else that’s happened. (“Introducing: Jessi Reaves and Gaetano Pesce”)
Jessi Reaves, Chenille Couch After Ruhlmann and Bucket Chair with Covers, 201723
The chairs of artist Jessi Reaves challenge Plato’s chairness, and Judd’s assertion that the value of a chair is solely in its usefulness as a chair. While Reaves’ chairs are useful, they do not appear to be created for their usefulness. These chairs transcend the concept of chair as a form that exists apart from an actual chair. Her chairs do not question themselves as relative art objects because there is no other way to define them.
Jessi Reaves’ Bucket Chair with Covers (2017) at first appears to be a metal frame overlaid with an eclectic mishmash of fabrics and materials haphazardly placed and waiting to be finished. It looks out of order and out of place in the gallery. On closer inspection, you find all the materials have been meticulously bound and sewn together. The careful attention to craftsman skill and detail show the intention of each element being exactly where it is meant to be. This purposefulness is what gives each of her chairs their own identity, while clouding the debate of art and design.
Reaves’ furniture objects opened new pathways for my thinking about art that functions. Her work not only obscures the argument of art and design, but also the boundary between art and life. They are complicated, feminized with both crude and delicate additions — completely divorced from Judd’s minimalist tendencies. Reaves’ chairs seem to breath with human-like blemishes and awkwardness. They are functional but their fragile materials and unprotected foam make them impractical as seating and as art. It is this impractical nature that elevates my thinking.
For the Whitney Biennial in 2015, Mary Heilmann created chairs for the rooftop of their newly relocated home in Chelsea. Heilmann’s site-specific installation highlighted and transformed the expansive rooftop outdoor gallery into a site for reverie and leisure with her series of brightly colored chairs (“Mary 24
Heilmann”). From a distance, her color palette of cube-like shapes made the entire rooftop her canvas. During the Biennial, the chairs turned the rooftop into a public art site for visitors to hang out, socialize, and enjoy the New York cityscape.
Public Sculpture Chairs
Scott Burton (1939-1989), an American sculptor, art critic and performance artist, was devoted to the form of the chair. He went from re-imagining found works to creating the furniture himself. Burton’s goal was to dissolve the boundary between fine and decorative arts. He worked in the tradition of the utilitarian modernist, and his art and furniture evolved into a new kind of public sculpture. His belief was that art should, ‘’place itself not in front of, but around, behind, underneath (literally) the audience.’’ (Smith). Burton’s work challenges the distinction between furniture and sculpture. Smith explained,
The art historian Robert Rosenblum described Burton as “singular and unique as a person as he was as an artist. His fiercely laconic work destroyed the boundaries between furniture and sculpture, between
Mary Heilmann, Sunset, 2015, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York25
private delectation and public use and radically altered the way we see many 20th-century masters.“
Chairs that Store Memories
My nan said, “There’s money in chairs.” She meant that people hide it in them - but I took it as a signifier. – Tracey Emin (Jones)
Emin was referring to the chair she inherited from her grandmother. She shared, My grandma died when she was 94. I was in a state of complete bereavement and shock … I wrote a book called Exploration of the Soul. It was the story of my life from the moment of conception to me losing my virginity. Then I decorated my Nan’s chair. With the book and the chair, my then boyfriend, the gallerist Carl Freedman, and I drove across America. Stopping off at museums and galleries, I would perform readings from the book, using the chair as my mini throne, my point of confidence, selling the book on the way. (Emin)
During her road trip, Emin embroidered and appliquéd significant words and sections of text onto the chair including the year of her grandmother’s birth
Scott Burton, Chairs for Six, 1985, 26
(1901) and the year of her birth (1963) on either side of the words ‘another world’, the nicknames she and her grandmother had for each other, ‘Ok Puddin, Thanks Plum’, and the names of all the cities she visited on her road trip. Emin tapestried her grandmother’s chair while grieving her passing and to memorialize her memory. The symbolic richness is compounded by the chairs functional lap she sat on like a throne while reading her early memoirs.
My grandmother had chairs and a matching sofa in her living room. They were a beautiful white on white, woven cotton and silk damask floral print. They were also covered with custom fitted stiff plastic that completely sealed the fabric from human touch or wear. At home, the chairs and furnishings in my parents living room growing up was similarly more for display and guests than comfort. It was modern, aloof, and disquieting. The living room sofa, chairs, walls, carpet and draperies were all bright white and off limits. Like the chairs displayed behind glass in museums. This style was typical in the 1960s. Looking back it might have reflected a solidarity with the Bauhaus influenced white city of Tel Aviv.
Tracy Emin, There’s a lot of money in Chairs, 1994 27
PART 5: MY CHAIRS
The wood branches rested outside my back door. Protected from the rain. They were beautiful. The gallery required that all the insects and fungi be exterminated so each branch was soaked in a borate-based product called Bora Care. I began my process by researching chair engineering based on the human body and ergonomics. I needed to gain a basic understanding of the chairs dimensional design needs. Since I am not a furniture maker, and these chairs will be universal, I needed to understand stress points to overlay safety with design and comfort.
I selected the branches with the tightest rings and hired a wood worker/studio assistant to get me over my fear of large power tools. I designed a jig so the logs wouldn’t roll around when I cut the branches to build the first chair frame.
This process was not like working with blank materials. I could not overlay whatever art mediums I wanted, like I could on a blank sheet of paper or canvas. The wood came with its own ideas, constraints, and voice that needed to be
First chair frame experiment made from the reclaimed branches28
heard. It was a partnership, and together we negotiated the frame. In time, a wordless dance of treeness versus chairness versus my artistic aesthetics developed. I discovered intuitive decisions were difficult but not impossible. I opened the back-frame moments before the glue set to add the spine branches for support. The legs came from a single branch that had beautiful bark and dense wood along with a terrible smell. I am saving the upholstery for after the sculptural forms are complete. I am looking forward to the increased freedom of working with fabrics. I plan to dye and paint old quilts and bedspreads for the upholstery.
Using the reclaimed wood and other materials feels grateful, and the more reclaimed materials I use, the less environmental harm I cause. I saved all the wood scraps and have given them a tertiary life as drawing charcoal.
Chair two is not working. It is too fussy and something else I cannot express in words so I am walking away. The installation deadline makes this decision difficult, but I cannot force what is not working.
Chair frames three and one, waiting to be softened with upholstery29
Chair three came to me as a dream and is based on my physical dimensions. It has a lap that wants to be soft and squishy. Our construction process has been difficult, and though we are totally engaged and committed, our trail of arguments can be seen. My next step is to refine for increased structural stability while proceeding cautiously so as not to remove our heated trail of process. Communicating verbally with my outside voice about my work is difficult.
• • •
April 22, 2018, my 64th birthday: Each word I write adds awareness of myself as I close the 40-year gap from BFA to MFA. The presence of an old friend I had not communicated with since 1986 has made his way into this writing and a few days ago I emailed him. Could I reclaim our friendship like reclaiming the wood at Folsom Lake? Following are excerpts from our emails.
Digital concept for upholstery30
Me: I have been wanting to reach out for a long time. The countless times I heard your words in my head, reflected on your stoic mannerisms, your love of art and beauty, your vulnerability and my insecurity in your presence. Remembering your mom’s guest room filled with art books and her beautiful oversized Gustav Klimt print. And decades later seeing this same painting at the Neue. You said, “Don’t sell everything your worth”, a response to my going into graphic design instead of fine arts. A handful of your many words that haunted me and underscored much of my critical thinking?
John: I thought about you the other day. A reverie. I’m not quite sure why. Except, at my age, I’m prolific with reverie. The memory was of your visit to 333 East 84th. Street, NY. . You stayed at my little studio apartment for a few days. I’m moderately certain we went to MOMA together, and probably the Met, maybe the Frick. It was an awkward visit. During an awkward time. But I so enjoyed your company. I was very lonely. You were a tonic. And I’m fairly certain you remain so.
But as to memory; not always a reliable conveyance of fact, not at least at my age, nevertheless, here’s how mine is freighted… “don’t sell everything your worth” doesn’t really sound like me. Sounds pretentious, sounds a bit too know it all. Yeah, I guess so, that could have been me. But my memory of you, my heartfelt memory of you at the time was of how proud I was of you, of how levelheaded you were, and how you were putting your talents to work in graphic design. And thank you for reminding me of the Klimt on my mother’s wall. That’s a memory I am happy to treasure with you.31
Me: “Don’t sell everything your worth.” Did I project those words onto myself from you as my gatekeeper? Were you keeping me conscious of my disrupted self as I poured my creativity into meaningless design projects—in absentia? Were you my Sol Lewitt? How often do I undemocratically write over yesterday’s truth?
The LACMA magazine resting on the 60‘s styled minimalist wood bench in your living room. A large abstract painting of an X on the cover painted by Richard Diebenkorn to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the museum. It was 1971, I was 16.5
• • •
At this point, my chair investigation continues into the realm of upholstering and installation. I cannot verbally explain the ethical paradox of making chairs for human comfort using wood from trees killed by our anthropocentric climate change. They were slated for dust and now they continue. They are not proxies for humans, and though their form is anthropomorphic, they are their own entities, their own selves, and they are also capable of giving comfort. Could this comforting lap from human-like chairs create a broader understanding of reality that includes kinship with other species? Will the visitors’ priority be given to vision or to the more active full-bodied engagement I am hoping for? Will its handmade domesticity point away from the cold and impersonal digital world and sanitized gallery space? Will they be kind? Reality is strange, and I don’t know how to awaken from my own anthropocentric slumber. 32
1 Glenn Adamson is a curator, writer, and historian who works across the fields of design, craft, and contemporary art. Currently editor-at-large of The Magazine Antiques, and senior scholar at the Yale Center for British Art, Glenn was previously director of the Museum of Arts and Design, New York, and head of research at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
2 Quote from John Davis, an old friend, in 1978.
3 Womanhouse, Cal Arts students and faculty collaborators: Beth Bachenheimer (Shoe Closet, Dining Room),¸Sherry Brody (Lingerie Pillows, The Dollhouse, Dining Room),¸Judy Chicago (Menstruation Bathroom, Cock and Cunt Play),¸Susan Frazier (Nurturant Kitchen/Aprons in Kitchen),¸Camille Grey (Lipstick Bathroom),¸Paula Harper (suggested project, Art Historian),¸Vicky Hodgetts (Nurturant Kitchen/Eggs to Breasts), Kathy Huberland (Bridal Staircase), Judy Huddleston (Personal Environment), Janice Johnson, Karen LeCocq (Leah’s Room, Dining Room), Janice Lester (Personal Space, Cock and Cunt Play), Paula Longendyke (Garden Jungle), Ann Mills (Leaf Room), Carol Edison Mitchell (Quilts), Robin Mitchell (Painted Room, Dining Room), Sandra (Sandy) Orgel (“Ironing”, Linen Closet), Jan Oxenburg (Three Women), Christine (Chris) Rush (“Scrubbing”, Necco Wafers), Marsha Salisbury, Miriam Schapiro (The Dollhouse, Dining Room), Robin Schiff (Nightmare Bathroom), Mira Schor (Red Moon Room), Robin Weltsch (Nurturant Kitchen/Eggs to Breasts), Wanda Westcoast (Curtains in Nurturant Kitchen), Faith Wilding (Womb Room & Waiting, Cock and Cunt Play, Dining Room, Crocheted Environment), Shawnee Wollenmann (The 33
Nursery, Three Women), Nancy Youdelman (Leah’s Room, Three Women).
4 Evan Shively graduated from Harvard and went on to be the award winning chef at Wolfgang Pucks Postrios before retiring from restaurant life to teach himself furniture making.
5 Excerpts from emailed correspondence to and from an old friend, John Davis, April 17-21, 2018.
• • •
Adamson, Glenn. Thinking through Craft. Bloomsbury Academic, 2007.
Auther, Elissa. “The Decorative, Abstraction, and the Hierarchy of Art and Craft in the Art Criticism of Clement Greenberg.” Oxford Art Journal, vol. 27, no. 3, 2004, pp. 341-364. http://www.jstor.org/stable/20107990.Copy
Barry, Eliza, “A Chair Is a Chair Is a Sculpture: On Jessi Reaves and the Decorative Unconscious.” Columbia University, May 24, 2017.
“Chair of Reniseneb.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art. https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/547687
Emin, Tracy. “Tracey Emin: My Life as a Column.” The Independent. https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/columnists/tracey-emin/tracey-emin my-life-as-a-column-491302.html34
Gerhard, Jane. “Judy Chicago and the Practice of 1970’s Feminism.” Feminist Studies, vol. 37, no. 3, 2011, pp. 591-618,747. http://proxy.artic.edu/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.proxy.artic.edu/docview/920872336?accountid=26320
“Introducing: Jessi Reaves and Gaetano Pesce.” The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. https://www.moca.org/stream/post/introducing-gaetano-pesce-and-jessi-reaves
Jones, Liz. “A Life More Eminent: Tracey Emin Opens up Her Intimate Photo Memoir - and Tells Liz Jones Why Her ‘not Always Palatable’ Past Has Shaped Her Life’s Work.” Daily Mail Online. 26 April, 2013. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/home/you/article-2311050/Tracey-Emin-opens-intimate-photo-memoir-tells-Liz-Jones-past-shaped-lifes-work
Judd, Donald, Nigel Prince, Alex Coles, and Ikon Gallery. “Donald Judd: A good Chair is a Good Chair.” 2011. Ikon Gallery, Birmingham, UK.
LDSOA. Glenn Adamson on “Craft.” 13 April, 2012. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xiQFfGi0hNg
Lynton, Norbert, and David Nash. David Nash. Abrams, 2008.
“Mary Heilmann: Sunset May 1–Sep 27, 2015.” Whitney Museum of American Art. https://whitney.org/Exhibitions/MaryHeilmann
Morton, Timothy. Being Ecological. 24 March, 2018. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Yv4W4M8Z8VQ35
Oral, Sevket Benhur. “Liberating facts: Harman’s Objects and Wilbers Holons.” Studies in Philosophy and Education, vol. 33, no. 2, 2014, pp. 117-134.
Parker Cornelia. Framework: Anti-Mass by Cornelia Parker. https://www.famsf.org/blog/framework-anti-mass-cornelia-parker
Plato. The Republic. The Internet Classics Archive. http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/republic.2.i.html
“Plato.” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plato
Salgado, Sebastião. The Silent Drama of Photography. Ted Talk, February 2013. https://www.ted.com/talks/sebastiao_salgado_the_silent_drama_of_photography
Shapiro, Miriam. “Recalling Womanhouse.” Women’s Studies Quarterly, vol. 15, no. 1/2, 1987, pp. 25-30.
Shively, Evan. In-person conversation, 10 March 10, 2018.
“Tree Facts.” Arborday.org, 2018. https://www.arborday.org/trees/treefacts
Smith, Roberta. “Scott Burton, Sculptor Whose Art Verged on Furniture, Is Dead at 50.” New York Times. 1 January, 1990. https://www.nytimes.com/1990/01/01/obituaries/scott-burton-sculptor-whose-art-verged-on-furniture-is-dead-at-50.html
Wilson, Anne. Artist - Artist Statement. https://www.annewilsonartist.com/about/statement.html