Sit on It

The title of the current exhibit at the Metro State Center for the Visual Arts, Chairs! Chairs! Chairs!, may suggest to some that what we're in for is a design show--or perhaps a display of artist-made furniture.

But it's neither.
Instead, CVA director Sally Perisho has assembled the work of some of Colorado's most accomplished artists who use chairs as imagery in their paintings and sculptures. "There are only three chairs you can sit on," she says. (Visitors are asked not to sit on them, however.) Though many of the artists have used chairs or allusions to chairs in previous works, others created pieces specifically for this show.

Chairs! has been an unabashed success, attracting the largest crowd in the CVA's history. "There were more people at the opening than at the Picasso show last summer," Perisho notes. Throngs have been walking through the door ever since.

Perisho came up with the idea when she noticed that many contemporary artists refer to chairs in their work. "The show demonstrates what it is that an artist can do well," she says. "They take us places we've never been, which displays the tremendous creativity of artists and their gifts." Perisho made an effort to include a wide range of material. "There are some pieces that are very accessible," she says. "It's an opportunity to see conventionally beautiful pieces, but there are also more difficult things, with some of the chairs being so abstracted that they're barely visible."

One of the first things to catch the eye is "Uneasy Chair," by George Peters, an artist who is mostly known for his installations and his kites. "Uneasy Chair," like several other pieces in the show, is a miniature chair, this one made of silver-painted rose thorns and wood. The title of the piece is apt; it would be difficult to sit on this chair, not only because it's so tiny, but because rose thorns are on the seat, back and legs. Next to "Uneasy Chair" is "Let X = X," by Melanie Walker. Walker, who typically works with photography, has taken a small chalk slate and attached a pair of dollhouse chairs to the front. The pairing of Peters's work with Walker's is appropriate, since the two are partners and have collaborated in recent years.

In the large back gallery, viewers are confronted by a group of full-sized chairs. First up is the elegant "Untitled," by Emmett Culligan, the wunderkind of Denver's sculpture scene. This chair is one of the handful of functional items in the show--not surprising, since Culligan's day job is as a furniture maker. And like his sculptures, it's so overbuilt, you could probably park a car on it. Using straps and tubular steel to form the frame, Culligan has set a pair of sandstone blocks on top to serve as seat and back. Alongside "Untitled" is "Tree Chair," by well-known sculptor Bernice Strawn. Strawn's chair is nominally functional but would probably fall apart if anyone other than Calista Flockhart should alight upon it. Using found tree boughs to form the structure, Strawn holds the piece together with planks in a ladder-back arrangement. Especially nice is the contrast of the twigs' natural color with the blue paint used on the seat and the green for the back.

Behind this group is a large oil painting by Madeleine Dodge called "Golden Mean." It sets a rendering of a paint-splashed chair alongside a series of illustrations of birds. The relationship of the different images is meant to suggest the Pythagorean notion of ideal proportion. Dodge, who is best known as an abstract painter, takes a realistic approach in "Golden Mean," so it's not surprising to find that she based this painting on a collage she created as a preparatory study.

One of the most interesting pieces in the show is an untitled work by Richard Colvin and Katherine Temple that occupies the small niche in the rear of the gallery. Colvin and Temple, who often collaborate, have created an installation with found chairs and sheets of glass. One element of the piece is a pair of yellow painted chairs; one is placed on top of a piece of transparent glass, and the other is suspended below it. Off to the left is an arrangement made of mirrors and three black painted bent-wood chairs. Colvin and Temple have placed these chairs in such a way that the distinction between them and their reflections is blurred. It is one of the best things the two artists have ever done.

Returning to the main space of the gallery, viewers are confronted by a pair of pieces by renowned photographer Albert Chong. The first is a large photographic color print called "Blessing the Throne for Gorilla"; adjacent to it is a sculpture titled "Throne for Mr. Baker." Both take up the Jamaica-born artist's interest in magic. The photo has a chair in the center that is surrounded by fruit offerings; off to the side, Chong is seen blowing smoke. The sculpture is a chair on which altered animal horns have been mounted. Though there is a functional seat, a simultaneously whimsical and disturbing black animal head has been placed on it in such a way as to prevent the chair from being used.

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Michael Paglia is an art historian and writer whose columns have appeared in Westword since 1995; his essays on the visual arts have also been published in national periodicals including Art News, Architecture, Art Ltd., Modernism, Art & Auction and Sculpture Magazine. He taught art history at the University of Colorado Denver.
Contact: Michael Paglia

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