North Carolina has been a national center of furniture manufacturing since the late 19th century, and in the 20th century it emerged as an influential region for furniture design. Given that legacy, it’s fitting that the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art is showcasing furniture-inspired and furniture-based art in a large group show.
“Furnished” opened last summer in SECCA’s Main Gallery, where it remains on view through Jan. 5. It includes more than 50 pieces by 15 contemporary artists from North Carolina and three of its adjoining states — South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia.
A number of these works would appear to function perfectly well as furniture. Other non-functional pieces simply refer to furniture and/or incorporate recognizable parts or design features of furniture.
Three pieces by David Bonhoff constitute elegant examples of artfully designed furniture. The gridded wood pattern on the top of his coffee table suggests woven cane. Illuminated from above, it casts a shadow of itself on its lower, solid-wood surface.
The shape of Bonhoff’s “Rassawak Side Table” is reminiscent of a round-bottomed jar or the traditional Indian drum known as a tabla. It’s made primarily from bent wood slats, though, and its top surface is a wood-framed glass disc.
The sloping, tightly fused wooden slats on the back and rear of Bonhoff’s “Draketail Chair” suggest a bird’s feathered tail, as its title hints.
Likewise elegantly functional are works by Jomo Tariku, which bear the influences of utilitarian objects and animals from Africa. His “MeQuamya Chair,” for example, is formally based on a T-shaped prayer staff used in Ethiopian Orthodox churches. And his”Nyala Chair” draws its inspiration from nature, specifically the horns of a male Nyala antelope.
Colin Knight’s furniture draws on Danish modern designs of the mid-20th century while employing unconventional materials. Prominent among the latter are thick pieces of felt that Knight uses in homage to the late German postmodernist Joseph Beuys (1921-1986), who often employed this material. Knight’s “Karkinos” — named for a large, extinct species of crab — is made of an inflated black-rubber tire inner-tube tightly contained within an exoskeleton of welded steel rods. It’s apparently designed to function as an ottoman.
Function is at least as important as form in the show’s work by Austin Ballard, which take their cues from domestic seating and lighting fixtures. Traditional wicker furniture is the reference point for his “Fainting Chair” and “Conversation Chair (Tête-à-Tête),” but he has enlivened these familiar designs with bold colors in rhythmic patterns. Color is also a key element in Ballard’s other contribution to the show, an installation of illuminated hanging light fixtures, each with multiple lampshades configured one atop the other.
Eric Serritella convincingly mimics the look of gnarled tree trunks in his chair titled “Majesty” and his accompanying “Tea Table.” In fact, though, these pieces are meticulously sculpted from clay, as is his teapot titled “Whisper,” which resembles a bonsai plant blackened and rendered leafless by fire.
Graham Campbell also pays tribute to the natural world with his piece titled “Fish Eats Table … For Lunch.” Its furniture component is a faithful replica of an antique Federal table Campbell saw in Old Salem. This small table is surrealistically augmented by an incongruous, carved-wood, sculptural component — a large, black Swaziland fish whose front half emerges from the round tabletop, as if surfacing from a pool of water.
John Pablo Barreda develops related content in his assemblages made from furniture components. These include pedestal sculptures depicting a tortoise and an orangutan, as well as wall-mounted, mock trophy heads of a bull and an alligator.
Like Barreda, Brent Skidmore deconstructs and reassembles chairs, tables, and other pieces of furniture to create whimsical sculptures. In Skidmore’s case, though, furniture remains the fundamental point of reference, as indicated by amusing titles such as “Mini Bling Table” and “Peril AND Promise of building a new living room.” He cobbles these vertically oriented works together so that they look as if they’re about to topple over and fall apart. In addition to recognizable parts of ordinary furniture, they also include related sculptural elements and, in one piece, tiny, dollhouse-scaled chairs.
In something of the same vein, Tom Shields partially dismantled several ordinary, wooden ladderback chairs, painted them black, and interspersed the results in a seemingly haphazard arrangement on three white-painted wood panels. Mounted on the wall as a triptych, they make up his installation simply titled “Process.”
The exhibition’s most eccentric contributions are the unwieldy sculptural assemblages of Jeff Bell, which incorporate furniture parts and other salvaged components made of wood, metal, and rubber. As its title suggests, Bell’s “Castle of the Mountain King” is an architectonic piece whose prominent features include an elevated, miniature covered bridge and an arm-like appendage whose bottom end appears to be a large, heavy blade designed to swing back and forth. The latter feature recalls the deadly apparatus in Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “The Pit and the Pendulum.” Bell’s nearby floor piece titled “Mountain King” might represent a royal, crown-bedecked head that has been severed by this instrument.
Bell is also represented by a goofy hybrid piece that adjoins the front end of a gravity-powered downhill race car (“Top Fuel Stave”) with a miniature church made from parts of an antique wooden sewing-machine cabinet (“Stave Church”).
Also represented in the show are Annie Evelyn, Sophie Glenn, Robin Helmkamp, William Lenard and Kimberly Winkle. Works on view were selected by Sarah Anne Carter (curator and director of research at the Milwaukee-based Chipstone Foundation), Rosa Otero (an associate professor of design who chairs Salem College’s Department of Art, Art History and Design), and Richard Prisco (a professor of industrial design at Appalachian State University) in collaboration with SECCA’s exhibitions curator Wendy Earle.