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Chairs That Make You Sit Down and Think

The evolution of her chair series, Louise Scullion says, represents transition in society from the simple to the ornate

TWO things are fairly evident about these three unusual "seats for the garden" by Louise Scullion - they are not really meant for sitting on and they might not last very long in a garden. Even the sturdiest, the Empire Chair, looks as though it isn't exactly designed to withstand high winds and rough weather - though painted metal is a standard material for garden furniture.

Ms. Scullion herself uses the word "paraphernalia" to describe the artifacts she makes - though broadly speaking they come under the heading "sculpture" and find their way into art galleries and collections. She speaks of working on the boundary between art and function.

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"A Small Evolution of Chairs" was shown last summer in the Compass Gallery, Glasgow, Scotland.

In her own explanation of this tripartite work, Scullion refers to John Steinbeck's observation that "we humans were the only animals who lived outside of ourselves, through external things such as possessions, money, and land."

She adds: "It seems to me that our drive, like some irksome weed, is to develop more complicated ways in which to disperse ourselves over vast areas of land, seeking to own and prepared to defend more than we can possibly 'use.' " That "preoccupation," she hopes, is reflected "in some way" in her "paraphernalia."

If her explanation seems something of a truism, her way of treating it as the stuff of her fanciful, if not surrealist, art is original. It is also - perhaps somewhat deceptively - light of touch. Her own interest in the uses and misuses of land and its ownership has evolved from her study at Glasgow School of Art where she specialized in "environmental art."

A traveling scholarship took her on a short tour of the Eastern United States, her aim to confirm her theory that gardens, particularly elaborate over-the-top gardens, appear "at the end of a society's history."

In an extension of this certainly debatable notion, Scullion's three chairs symbolize stages in a society's (or an individual's or business enterprise's) de- velopment.

"Settlers' Chair" comes first. It is spindly. Its legs are not strengthened with spars. Its spare structure is emphasized by the fragility of its seat - "built in the nine-square grid pattern of the early American settlements." Then it is "gridded again" to "hint at the vast latticed landscapes of the great metropolis cities." This grid is partly made of strips of old map, and Scullion fantasizes about sitting on it (only once!): "there'd be a delicious feeling of those strips pinging and bursting....!"

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THE "Planters' Chair" (in the exhibition she additionally labeled it "Homestead") is, she says, "more substantial" and "comfortable" with its curved wooded seat. Its back legs have small fixing holes provided, like "old porch chairs" that could be screwed to the floor. A painting on its seat depicts a plantation scene: a landowner's (possibly also a slave owner's) chair.

Finally, the "Empire Chair" is "deliberately too ornamented." It is also "awkward and heavy" (though, it must be said, only relatively so). These are characteristics Scullion maintains that "in all living organisms precede extinction." The "Empire Chair," with its American Eagle emerging from a cloud and "keeping a watchful eye over its Empire," is also rather narrow for anyone of reasonable proportions who might think of sitting on it. If they did, they might find the rows of metal protrusions on the s eat rather uncomfortable.

Is Scullion making a heavy political point? "Och, no," she laughs, "it's not that heavy!"

But all the same she feels that the human tendency to proceed from settler to planter to empire - whether it's a nation or a business - might be something we'd have learned to avoid by now.

"Maybe the 'Planters' Chair' is a much safer place to be," she says. "You can still get up and leave that place and go off somewhere and survive. Instead of becoming so big that you become a dinosaur."

HER favorite of the three chairs is the first. It was influenced in her thinking by the Shaker chairs. The idea that appealed to her was found in something she read about their "peculiar grace" existing because "they were built by someone capable of believing that an angel might one day sit on them."

"I've made chairs since about that," Scullion says. Some have wings. "I like that notion and that simplicity. Nice to be able to move. A chair like that could be carried quite easily, it's so light."

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