You might think you know what you think about furniture: that it’s utilitarian, it’s background, that any influence it wields is only on other furniture and that only at a glacial pace. The power of 10 original and very crafty contemporary furniture designers, now at the Fitchburg Art Museum, very quickly disabuse one of these easy notions as contemporary furniture furnishes metaphors for our most intimate human concerns, fears and hopes.
Liz Shepherd’s “Untitled: Blue” is one of the most naked metaphors to meet the visitor ascending the stairs to the exhibit. A very plain, blue-painted clothes chest splits in two by a stroke so sudden and powerful that each half rests on the jagged ends of its drawers — the broken drawers spilling out, higgledy-piggledy, the flaccid arms of jerseys, sweaters and other coverings for the needy human torso.
My first reaction was an unsettled and vacant “Huh?” which the brief legend on the placard explaining a serious surgery in the artist’s family didn’t half explain. But after going through the exhibit’s other resonant spaces, alive with symbol and metaphor at the heart of mostly “wooden” furniture, I returned to a conversation with the artist that I could (almost) have completed myself. “It’s a chest,” Ms. Shepherd says, poignantly laying a hand on her heart.
In my second go-round of this evocative exhibit, my sensors, usually stowed in my back pocket, where I sit, were unusually open and frontal. Artist/designer Leah K. Woods’ “Dressing Table” is classic studio furniture: restrained curves summoned into striking presence by vision and craft. The oval mirror the table holds up so gracefully surely promises any beauty looking in instantaneous enhancement.
But, wait! The open central drawer, which usually stows a jumble of cosmetics, is adorned solely with a bare slash of light wood inlaid so seamlessly it could be an errant beam of sunlight. You try to interrupt it with your hand — but it’s still there, within… Is this deep beauty an admonition to the exquisite table’s owner not to “gild the lily” but to let the essential shine out? Or am I, previously deaf, now crediting furniture with too much eloquence?
A palpable buzz from one of the far corners of this capacious exhibit puts an end to my doubts. Artist Celeste Roberge’s witty homage to electric moments and maker’s in art history is carried out not through words but stacks of miniature “chairs” — each speaking volumes.
On a dare, said Ms. Roberge, it was surrealist artist Méret Oppenheim, as she was sitting around with “the boys” in the heyday of European Surrealism, who took up a dare to craft one of surrealism’s ickiest, most iconic images: a fur-covered tea cup, saucer and teaspoon.
Legions of art lovers, tea drinkers or not, have paused to gag at this discomforting image.