Bad Chairs: Furniture in Distress (Series)
1995 – 2018 (Copyright may apply)
This series returns to themes I first explored in 1995, with the installation of Caged Chair in “Exposure and Vulnerability,” a group show at Empire Fulton Ferry State Park in Brooklyn, New York. I had been creating sculptures using domestic imagery and found architectural objects for several years. This was one of the resulting works. My initial intent was to create a surrealist piece that placed a familiar domestic object out of context and out of reach. I welded together a house-shaped steel mesh cage and placed a used red velvet easy chair inside. Prompted by the show’s title, I sited the cage so that, rather than being safe and secure within its house, the chair was inescapably exposed to damaging weather. The effect was disorienting and disturbing. In his review of the show, the New York Times critic Holland Cotter singled out Cage Chair as among the “few pieces that make their mark.” He described it as “simply a threadbare upholstered chair encased in a steel cage.” However, this “emblem of at-home comfort . . . is now both untouchable and at the mercy of the elements.” *
The series Bad Chairs: Furniture in Distress includes Caged Chair with four new pieces that develop its underlying themes. All five center on easy chairs whose worn upholstery shows that they have been used and appreciated by their human owners. All are vulnerable. They are being punished and even tortured: caged, whipped, bound, stabbed, or skinned. Such cruel treatment is familiar from horror movies, martyrology, pornography, and real-life crime, with the chairs here playing the role of the hero or heroine in distress. Chairs are not human. They are not living creatures, and they do not feel pain. However, distressing these beloved domestic objects provokes strong mixed feelings in viewers. On the one hand, there’s the viewer’s awareness that “it’s only a chair.” On the other hand, there’s identification with the chair’s imagined pain and suffering. Like some satirical horror films, the effect of the chair’s “performance” is comic or, in this case, tragicomic. While torturers imaginatively convert their human victims into dehumanized objects, viewers here convert unfeeling chairs into suffering subjects, creating a channel for empathy, however absurd. When Caged Chair was exhibited, I overheard one woman say to another that it was terrible to see what was done to that perfectly good chair. That is exactly what I wanted to hear. A mystic truth had been revealed.
The five sculptures in the series include two static pieces designed to be viewed in a gallery setting; two pieces designed for one-time performances in a gallery setting, with video recordings of the performances to be shown alongside the post-distressed chairs; and one hybrid piece.
As described above, this is a hybrid piece which, when placed in a protected interior setting, appears static, but, when displayed in an unprotected exterior setting, “performs” in response to distressing weather. It consists of an old upholstered easy chair within a house-shaped cage made of welded steel mesh.
This is a static piece designed to be shown in a gallery setting. It consists of an old easy chair upholstered with worn ivory velvet. Shaped for a user’s support and relaxation, the chair’s back, arms, and legs mirror the human form it serves. In this case, however, the chair is no longer easy. Arms tightly bound with rope, it cannot comfort others or itself.
This is another static piece designed to be shown in a gallery setting. It also consists of an old easy chair upholstered with worn ivory velvet. The body of the chair is pierced by long wood spears in numerous places. Among other images, the chair’s distress recalls the martyrdom of Saint Sebastian, a favorite subject of Renaissance painters.
This performance piece would take place in a gallery setting. Its principal performers would be an old easy chair and a masked actor dressed in a black S/M outfit. The actor’s task would be to whip the defenseless chair, thereby slashing and scarring the already worn fabric of its upholstery. The performance would be videotaped, and the video shown in the gallery post-performance, alongside the distressed chair.
This performance piece would take place in a gallery setting. Its principal performers would include an old easy chair and an actor, dressed in a worker’s uniform, who would systematically remove the chair’s outer fabric skin and inner layers of soft cushioning to reveal its skeletal framework. The skinned material would be placed in a separate pile a few feet away. As with Whipping Chair, the performance would be videotaped, and the video shown in the gallery post-performance, alongside the exposed skeleton and pile of skinned material.
*Holland Cotter, “Sculpture Not Meant to Last Forever,” Art Review, The New York Times, August 18, 1995, p. C22.