Chicago

Margaret Wharton

Margaret Wharton’s medium is chairs; her subject matter—animals, architecture, ideas, and chairs. Her technique is deconstruction; her art, transformation. In the 54 sculptures and 30 photographs installed in this handsome exhibition, which covered only six years of work, Wharton’s objects established themselves as unique subjective inventions, distinct from much recent furniture art. Somewhat influenced by Lucas Samaras, Wharton slices and saws away to the heart of weathered kitchen chairs, sifting and shuffling the resulting fragments and reassembling them into sensitive hybrids of significance. The physical process of dissection here resembles the mental process, but the pursuit is introspective rather than scientifically dispassionate. In Veneer Specimen I and Veneer Specimen II, both from 1975, Wharton slices and flattens dull green chairs between plates of glass, depriving them of function and volume but making them available for scrutiny as abstract forms. Acknowledging Marcel Duchamp’s prisoner bride, Wharton shows her admiration for Georgia O’Keeffe in the 1978 Morning Bed, crowned by a skull composed of chair parts. Another haunting object of artistic homage is Portrait for Frida Kahlo, 1978, a white and spiky chair whose central void recalls the barrenness of its cruelly crippled subject.

Wharton’s deconstructions of ready-mades are only the first step in a process whose results are as multifaceted and open-ended as its approach is monocratic. Trinity, 1975, is three cross-sections of a wooden chair, still bearing traces of the original paint, suspended like teetering hinged marionettes. In Martyr, 1975, tiny square chair segments are tied together like chain mail; the bits of wire are exposed like the arrows that simultaneously pierce and hold together Saint Sebastian in Renaissance panels. Further displacements, shifting kitchen chairs into sovereign symbols and even deities, occur in the tall anthropomorphic Idol Chair of 1976 and in the 1978 Rain Cloud—in which a throne becomes the ruler, sitting under a canopy of chair fragments suspended like rain. What is remarkable in these transformations, in addition to the painstaking technique, is how Wharton imbues them with a ritualistic aura, often unconvincing in art where primitivizing becomes a superficial borrowing of extracultural content. Wharton’s understanding of devotion is also evidenced in Relic, 1977, another three-part chair in which the middle slice is the positive shape fitting perfectly in its container the way a violin fits its case.

Wharton is unafraid of revealing sentiment and gentle, domestic humor. Family, 1981, is a veritable chair genealogy, with the offspring naturally formed from and sitting on the lap of the parent chair and an obligatory pet chair crouched underneath. The “picture” installed above—a piece of plywood in a frame—is a gloss on the traditional portrait pose, suggesting that all family portraits are staged illusions of intimacy. Wharton’s work is most affecting when it is paradoxical, resting on the thinnest slice of similarity, the most subtle displacements based on metonymy rather than metaphor. These modest, wary works are reluctant to reveal their significance, holding it secret at the same time that the technique reveals all. In Recital, 1981, a formal (in the tuxedo sense) white chair almost five feet tall has a seat held aloft by a brass pin, like the lid of a grand piano. Middle C, 1976, is a chair sliced vertically and hinged into piano keys.

Other recent pieces have decorated surfaces or skins of photographs that are more responses to external fashion than internal fiction. But Wharton manages to undercut delicately even the styles she adopts in the shimmering Odalisque, 1980. She reduces the voluptuous type into a slatted, identifiable silhouette. A tiny chair with gold stripes becomes the body of a bird whose expansive wings are pinned to the wall. The feet of Mockingbird, 1981, terminate in the curled claws of a predator, and the exotic hybrid Bantam Chair, 1979, has zebra stripes and Queen Anne feet.

Wharton’s titles are more than labels; they are puns, poetic embellishments, and final details, inviting the viewer to look again to check how deftly the words and forms mesh. This obsessive detail, which is a counterpart to her ritualistic dismantlings, is confirmed in the perfectly proportioned concrete bases separating Wharton’s work from the mundane furniture that equips our daily lives. Wharton’s art goes beyond even her own visual puns and elegantly turned phrases. She no longer depends solely on the intrinsic anthropomorphic and psychological associations of a chair. The most intriguing works are those that have a quality of realized memory, of one thing becoming another and still being what it was. These works give form to and freeze the actual moment of becoming, and their presence resides in that space between chair and artistic conception. These sculptures remind one of classroom skeletons demonstrating their own construction, fragility, and mortality. Difficult Crossing, 1977, is a squat, worn, black chair in an openwork skeleton of a boat. Both rider and vessel are parts of a whole—dismantled, dependent, and about to sink. The work provokes a feeling of pathos, suggesting that the components can never escape their origins and must survive as memories of former selves, albeit fragmented and glued together.

Judith Russi Kirshner