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Art is a chair (and a cupboard, and a lamp)

Art is a painting. It is something you can put up on the wall, representing fruit, a person, a landscape. It is in a museum, or goes with your sofa. It is a sculpture, usually Greek, or, if modern, consists of unexplained surfaces and masses. It is usually in a museum, too, though if your living room is big, it still might look pretty good with your sofa. Thanks to recent innovations, art may also be a bridge wrapped in pink plastic by somebody famous. Or imaginatively piled earth declared to be a new direction by an official art expert.

Art is not a chair. It is not a cupboard. You can't sit on it, or drink out of it, or use it for anything.

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But what, then, to call Alphonse Mattia's intriguing pair of chairs, named ``Grace'' and ``Grace's Date''? Grace looks a lot like Grace Jones; she is a tall thin valet chair with a red and blue skirtlike seat and a tough look about her wooden face. ``Grace's Date'' (also known as ``Eddie,'' according to Mr. Mattia) is pretty similar; he looks tough, too, and wears an earring. (See photograph, next page.) You can hang a coat on them if you want. (But it would then become, for the duration, ``Grace'' or ``Eddie's'' coat.)

Or what about Stephen Whittlesey's witty, whimsical cupboards, which, while less obviously humanoid, have a presence, almost the feeling of another person standing there?

``The Bride of Somesville'' is a tall, narrow cupboard with, as its door, a plank from an old schooner found near Somesville, Maine. It has a distinct personality, and the beautiful workmanship and sophisticated idea are a joyful counterpoint to the harsh rustic quality of the materials. ``The Bride'' is charming, accessible; it would create an environment of imagination and delight, a feeling of freedom and sweeping possibility, in any space. It would also be a wonderful place to keep sweaters.

The cupboard format ``gives me the most freedom to fool around with shapes,'' says Mr. Whittlesey, who has an MFA degree from Columbia University and is a former Fulbright scholar.

Art can even, arguably, be a sofa. In art books you can find Salvador Dali's curvy red sofa, entitled ``Marilyn Monroe's Lips.'' You look at it at first and think it's just a sofa; then you look again and think: ``Oh my gosh - lips.''

To the battleworn and unanswerable question ``What is art,'' many craftspeople and craft curators say that it isn't a matter of what an object is but rather how it is - what degree of skill and feeling is brought to bear by the artist.

In the catalog of a recent exhibit entitled ``The Eloquent Object,'' put together by curators Tom and Marcia Manhart of the Philbrook Museum of Art in Tulsa, Okla., many distinguished critics in the crafts field take the controversial but freeing stance that the distinctions between arts and crafts have blurred. They argue that the old hierarchy, in which art is exceptional and craft everyday, where art is superior and craft hopelessly subservient, is no longer relevant. Rose Slivka, for many years editor of Craft Horizons, quotes Picasso: ``If it's good, it's art; if it's not, who cares?''

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Alphonse Mattia is, in addition to his own work, a teacher at a highly regarded furniture-making program that was originally part of Boston University, then moved to the Swain School of Design in New Bedford, Mass., and has recently come to rest under the aegis of Southeast Massachusetts University. This program is one reason for the intense concentration of artist-furnituremakers in the Boston area.

Mattia doesn't like to address the art-vs.-craft question at all, declaring firmly that it is a tired old question he prefers not even to discuss. ``We are always trying to justify things that frighten people,'' he says. Furniture should join the other arts in art magazines and serious critical discussions, he says, and enough of home furnishings and any whining about ``Is it art?''

All this is a dramatic turnaround from the view prevailing in the 1950s and '60s and, to an extent, still going on, whereby even the average person could tell without hesitation what was art and what was craft, not only by the medium, but by whether or not the object had any functional use, however minor. ``Having stuff that functions in art galleries is pretty funny. You couldn't even walk in front of one in the '50s and '60s,'' says Whittlesey.

But art itself changed in the '70s to more of a ``sensory experience,'' he says. This change was first reflected in the crafts by the appearance of non-functional ceramics (``You couldn't put weeds in them; you couldn't put clocks in them; they were still called ceramics''), then moved on to the other media.

``I like to use function as an element in my work, as I would use color or texture or line or mass,'' says Whittlesey. ``The key is that `furniture' is kind of a meaningless term. It's more important to me to have these things read not as furniture but as an idea - except that part of the sculpture can do something. If a long piece of furniture had a little drawer, it's more that it would be fun to have a little drawer out there.''

There is a range in price for all the artists, but many pieces are priced in the $2,000-to-$7,000 range. Whittlesey, Tom Loeser, and Mitch Ryerson are represented by Arthur Dion of the Gallery Naga in Boston.

When Whittlesey gets a commission, he says, he has to determine whether people ``want a concept or just something to put the newspapers on. Sometimes you don't want to have an experience. This thing is going to be like adopting a juvenile delinquent,'' he says, as a joke, looking up at ``The Bride of Somesville.''

Boston is a recognized center for the art-furniture movement. According to Michael Monroe of the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., there is also ``a sprinkling of artists'' throughout the country.

The other recognized center is California, again thanks to the many universities that train artists, and galleries that promote them, as well as adventurous consumers who will buy art furniture. As Ken Trapp of the Oakland Museum of Art says, ``They'll take a chance.''

Mr. Trapp says he's heard two views on the art-vs.-craft question from California artists. ``I've heard furnituremakers who say, `I'm a furnituremaker and nothing more; that's all I want to be.' There are artists who say, `I have a vision, and I want to fulfill it. It might not be a cup; it might be a chair.' What I think is highly hilarious is that, 100 years later, we're doing what was done at the end of the 19th century. We're calling it art furniture, art glass, and art pottery again.''

While expressing great respect for the artists interviewed here, Trapp adds, ``I've seen artists who turn to furniture and do absolutely abominable kitsch. It takes a long time to learn a craft. And craft is nothing more than doing what has to be done correctly. Conviction is self-evident. Art that has no conviction is not art. It's pretense.''

Art furniture is becoming a commercial venture, but Trapp warns that, often in the art world, success is more dangerous than failure. ``Artists, when they become a success, think their problems have been solved. How do you maintain that freshness of vision? They hire an assistant, and before they know it they're back to a factory. We have such an image that creativity is a flash across the sky, and God zaps you one. It's very hard work.''

Trapp agrees function should not be the dividing line between art and craft, pointing to the great furniture artist Sam Maloof: ``Maloof takes wood and molds it as if it had a plasticity, as if it were rubber,'' he says. ``Function is not something he has been terribly eager to dispense with.'' It's also a mistake, Trapp continues, to think that fine art has no function. He lists some of its functions: ``It bestows status on people. It decorates walls. For some people, it's the road to becoming someone, to own art.''

Mitch Ryerson has a piece in the permanent collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. He works at the Cambridgeport Cooperative Woodshop in neighboring Cambridge. As you walk into the workroom, you notice that it is neat, except for some sawdust. Bikes lean in the back; there is a smell of wood and the slow, patient sound of someone sanding. At noon, all the furniture artists sit on the sidewalk in the sunshine eating their lunch.

``My most successful pieces come from some sort of personal experience that relates to [my] own life, as opposed to trying to do something abstract or experimental,'' says Mr. Ryerson.

As an example, he shows an exquisitely executed child's rocking chair; the back is a little washboard; the arms are supported by clothespins. ``The idea came from having a kid and being inundated with laundry - laundry and feeding seemed to go together,'' says Ryerson, the father of two little girls, aged 1 and 3, who love the similar washboard rocker he made for them.

He is now moving from heavily painted works to more emphasis on the wood itself. He shows one piece - a gorgeous chair made of four different woods, called ``People Chair,'' which has a wonderful primitive feel. (See Page 21.) ``It's nice to think of art as an environment you live in. And that could just as easily be furniture as a painting or a piece of fine art,'' he says.

So a work of art steps off the wall or out of the niche and joins you in the room, masquerading as a table. And it's almost harder to ignore than a painting or a statue, because you don't expect it, you don't expect to have to deal with it. You want to know its secrets, and you feel entitled; it's not like fine art, the eccentric uncle, to be indulged and then ignored.

Furniture artist Tom Loeser makes witty, gorgeously painted folding chairs that bolt to the wall; they can lie flat or fold out to be sat on. While the effect is of a painting, it's important that each chair can function as a chair: Without that, ``it would lose a whole level of meaning, I think,'' Mr. Loeser says.

Another series Loeser has been working on is a group of lamps. These lamps have character, too: They have names like ``Lulubelle'' (``she's definitely the flashiest one'') and ``Barney'' (``he's just a regular guy,'' says Loeser, grinning).

``Some of us are starting to show in galleries that show painting and sculpture. I think people approach the work a little bit differently [then]; when you see furniture in a gallery next to the paintings, you judge it the same way as the painting.''

When furniture appears in museums, that shifts people's focus, as well. The Museum of Fine Arts has a small basement floor devoted to art furniture. Here Ned Cooke, assistant curator of American decorative arts and sculpture, points out a Paul Sasso cupboard, entitled ``Chip 'n' Dale,'' inspired by, of course, Chippendale, as well as Dale Evans. It is tall and narrow and is painted white with black irregular patches, like a Jersey cow; it makes you laugh. It may seem odd to talk about ``horse imagery'' in a cupboard, but that's what it is.

The paint is exceptionally rich and thick; Mr. Cooke points out Mr. Sasso's ``wonderful sense of paint,'' adding that the artist painted the cupboard a rich glossy black, then painted the white on top. ``That is what gives it the depth.''

Cooke is the curator for ``Tradition and Innovation: The Second Generation of American Studio Furniture-makers,'' an art-furniture exhibit that will appear at the Museum of Fine Arts in December, 1989. The show will include people who have begun working in the '70s and '80s. (What Cooke describes as the first generation includes artists such as Sam Maloof, George Nakashima, and Tage Frid, who began working in the '50s and '60s.)

Cooke says that we've really transcended the concept of functionalism. ``So people shouldn't think that just because [a work] is functional, it's not art.''

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