But Can You Sit On It?

Form vs. function. The argument seems almost quaint now. It has been more than a century since Oscar Wilde began his preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray by declaring, "The artist is the creator of beautiful things," then ended, 30 or so sentences later, with a trio of bizarre assertions: "We can forgive a man for making a useful thing as long as he does not admire it. The only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admires it intensely. All art is quite useless."

Perhaps we can forgive Wilde's charming non sequiturs easily now that modern art has rendered them largely irrelevant. It is no longer necessary (if indeed it ever was) that beautiful things be useless, any more than it's necessary for useful things to be plain and artless. If art and design aren't actually married, they've been living together long enough to establish a common-law relationship that we can pretty much take for granted.

I digress in the service of a fascinating new exhibition, "Inspired by China: Contemporary Furnituremakers Explore Chinese Traditions," which just opened in the main second-floor galleries of the Museum of Art Fort Lauderdale. If there are still Wildeans among us, they might uncharitably write it off as a high-toned trade show for pretentious artisans who take their work way too seriously. You can almost hear them carping, "It's furniture, for God's sake."

Well, yes, it is furniture, in the same way that the quilts downstairs in MOA's "The Quilts of Gee's Bend" are pieces of fabric sewn together to provide warm bed coverings. But to see the furniture in "Inspired by China" as nothing more than objects to hold things or to sit or lie upon is to be willfully perverse, even though such functions are inherent to the objects.

My head was spinning with these and other related thoughts when I accompanied one of the two furniture makers present at the opening, Joe Tracy of Maine, upstairs to look at and talk about his contribution to the exhibition. Tracy is one of 22 carefully chosen furniture makers from the United States, Canada, and China who were invited to convene in June 2005 at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, for an intensive three-day cross-cultural symposium.

The Peabody Essex — the oldest continuously operating museum in the country — provided curatorial presentations and demonstrations of furniture-making techniques and gave the assembled men and women the opportunity to examine and talk about furniture. A private installation of more than 40 pieces of traditional Chinese furniture had been set up for them to study, and field trips were organized to other Chinese collections (including the Peabody's).

The furniture makers were then encouraged to return to their studios and draw on their experiences for their work. The symposium, the resulting exhibition, and a catalog that exhaustively documents and examines the project together make up "Inspired by China." (The Museum of Art Fort Lauderdale is only the exhibition's second stop since it left Peabody Essex.)

In Tracy's case, inspiration came in the form of an 18th-century Chinese item identified as Tangram Puzzle Tables with Cracked-ice Footrest Designs. The work is really a suite of seven 32-inch-high tables consisting of a square, a parallelogram, two large triangles, a medium triangle, and two small triangles. And in keeping with the idea of a tangram, a Qing dynasty concept, the seven pieces can be taken apart and reassembled in a variety of configurations or used separately as stands and tables placed throughout a room.

After studying and absorbing the design, Tracy says, "I decided I couldn't do it any better as a table," and so he took the idea in another direction. The result is Split Personalities in Sequoia semper virens: Three Case Studies. It's a stunner, an altarlike construction in which Tracy folds the equivalent of tangram puzzle tables into a pair of small square stands or tables and a trio of cabinets, each of which opens to reveal internal shelving and tiny drawers.

I had a bit of difficulty making the imaginative leap from tangram tables to cabinetry, until Tracy explained that the components of his work could, like the tangram puzzle pieces, be separated and put back together in various ways. "It was the modularity" of the tables that inspired him, he says, "the many pieces coming together in different ways."

Tracy's suite incorporates a variety of woods, including split sequoia redwood, Indonesian red palm, Lebanon cedar, and walnut, with the final design enhanced by silver leaf and Damascus steel. The detail that takes it from the merely gorgeous into the realm of the exquisite is the use of split (as opposed to sawed) curly redwood to create the three highly textural ovoid panels that punctuate the cabinets.

It is such finishing touches, Tracy says, that would make it impractical to produce a piece of this sort on a commercial scale. (He explains that he reached these final versions of the panels only after much trial and error.) In principle, Tracy has no objections to the notion of furniture being practical as well as aesthetically satisfying, although he finds himself drawn more to the latter: "That's where my interest lies, anyway, in art furniture."

I suspect many, if not most, of the other artists featured in "Inspired by China" would share that sentiment to one extent or another. As lovely as they are, the stainless-steel forms of Chinese furniture maker Shi Jianmin's Chair and Stool hardly offer up inviting surfaces for one's bottom. These gleaming, seemingly amorphous creations seem to have suddenly gone from a molten to a frozen state; they hold the idea of furniture within them, even though that idea has been abstracted almost beyond recognition.

Another of the exhibition's most striking works similarly, if more subtly, manipulates the discrepancies between form and function. For his Screen #1, Tom Hucker fashions a six-panel folding screen from Swiss pearwood and English yew, but keeps the scale of the panels a relatively short (and more or less useless) three or so feet tall. He then tops the wood with cast-bronze twigs and branches that set up a range of dramatic tensions — between solidity and airiness, between the visual and the tactile, between natural and artificial.

Many of the remaining works are more conservative but rarely less than intriguing in their explorations of and experimentations with the themes. Even the items that don't quite rise to the level of fine art are mostly knockouts as furniture. And the entire exhibition has been put together with a great deal of care, down to the tapestries and other wall decorations that enliven the show's flow and the backdrops and dividing walls (beautifully built with minimalist flair by the museum's head in-house preparator, Freddy Jouwayed).

If there's a quibble to be had with "Inspired by China," it's that this is yet another object-based MOA exhibition. The museum has presented some excellent fine-art shows in the past few years, Chicano Visions: American Painters on the Verge and The Spectacle of Life: The Art of William Glackens being perhaps the most notable examples. But after Saint Peter and the Vatican: The Legacy of the Popes, Diana: A Celebration, Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs, Cradle of Christianity: Jewish and Christian Treasures from the Holy Land, and the current The Quilts of Gee's Bend, not to mention the upcoming The Great Age of American Automobiles, a lot of museumgoers are left hungry for more painting, sculpture, and other media. Is that an appetite MOA will leave unsatisfied?

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Michael Mills