New York

Celine Chalem

Martha Jackson Gallery

Celine Chalem’s sculptured tables at the Martha Jackson Gallery are as unabashedly sensualist as they are emphatically practical in aim. Chalem doesn’t think of her pieces as unapproachable, pristine objects. Rather, the wood, marble, bronze, or glazed ceramic free-form torsos, accommodating fruits and spheres into the curves or depressions of the body’s relief, are meant to be touched, handled, eaten upon, and celebrated with.

In works such as the Playboy Breakfast Table, halved melons and apples open to reveal cups, bowls, or breasts, and the shallows smoothed into the silvered surface are receptacles for food or plates to eat upon. The interchangeable parts are meant expressly to be played with or sampled, so that eating becomes a deliciously expanded tactile game. Chalem’s preference for rounded and highly polished forms executed in marble and bronze no doubt reflects her contacts with Brancusi in Paris. Nevertheless, the frankly hedonistic function of her work removes these tables from the earlier artist’s hermetic world of “Fine Art” into a more current environmental idiom. The hinged or detachable bellies and breasts, or the brightly painted rubber spheres of Belly Bowling invite participation, rather than contemplation from a distance. One is almost tempted by the sleek execution, and by a generally accomplished level of craftsmanship, to consider these works as something more than merely decorative accessories.

But there is a certain kind of “gimmickry” to the whole group, which somehow fails to rescue them from the realm of faintly decadent, if enjoyable, furnishings. Perhaps the most obvious example of this corny “cuteness” may be seen in Only You, a round cocktail or coffee table on which engraved and projecting sculpted hands actually grasp the fruit, and a blue rose, tattooed on the surface, purportedly signifies a spiritual unity of bed and board. At this, one begins to question what the point of combining body parts and their erotic functions with the dining table might be. It is true that certain Pop artists have incorporated the body into objects or mock public monuments, but usually as an elaborate joke, or an ironic comment on current preoccupations. Here, it strikes one as a rather un necessary projection. Historically, vases, vessels, and tables have always been suggestive of human or organic forms. But to find the body physically entrapped in them, as in Chalem’s tables, somehow just doesn’t work.

Her theme is more effectively underplayed in a piece called Gold Finger Table, where the subtle relief is not too much compromised by additional sculpted parts. The idea also seems to work better in pieces where a distinctly “table-setting” instinct is kept at a minimum, and the formal grace of shapes and their arrangement is allowed to dominate.

Emily Wasserman