Washington, D.C

Susan Cooper

Henri Gallery

During the last decade, the question “Is it craft or is it art?” has been intensely debated. Functionality is often considered the determining factor, craft objects being defined and delimited by their functionality, and art objects belonging to the nonfunctional esthetic realm. Susan Cooper’s exhibition here of eight works, by its very title—“Non-Functional Furniture”—seems an attempt to locate craft objects within the supposedly more prestigious realm of fine art. However, Cooper’s works are not primarily about furniture or functionality. Consider Washington Chair, 1989, and Duet, 1988, a pair of ill-proportioned red chairs with painted blue shadows, odd-sized legs, elongated backs, and trapezoidal seats. In these works, Cooper has created something quirky that certainly looks like furniture; however, because the distortions are not dictated by an exploration of craft materials or the concept of the chairs, these works may be understood as constructions that use furniture as a vehicle to explore other ideas, such as, in this case, the relationship between painting and sculpture. Their vocabulary of forms exploits Greenbergian ideas concerning pictorialism, especially the idea that sculpture should not focus on objectness (that is, three-dimensionality).

Even though Cooper’s works may superficially recall Scott Burton’s furniture in that they are constructed/framed in a pictorial mode, they undermine objectness and are related, at least theoretically, to Anthony Caro’s abstract sculpture. This is best seen in the painted shadows and highlights on the seats in Duet, three-dimensional objects constructed as trapezoids and tilted toward an imaginary picture plane so as to appear in flattened perspective. Cooper borrows some of the devices painters use to create tension between illusions of form and the flatness of the picture plane, something hardly necessary when making furniture or sculptural objects. In Coming of Age in 1968, 1988, Cooper complicates matters by placing a table with books on it below a painting of a potted plant in a bright, sunny window—the painting itself is also reproduced in miniature on the cover of one of the books. The trapezoidal tabletop looks like a reflection of the painting. Cooper raises questions about the identity of painting and sculpture through a game of realities and illusions.

After Gris, 1989, features a blue table constructed in perspective upon which a painted checkerboard panel and a red tablecloth with highlights, shadows, and modeling have been added. Here Cooper has upped the ante, not only by using painted shadows to replace the real shadows cast on the table legs by the tabletop, but by placing upon the table a three-dimensional bowl of fruit faceted with painted highlights and shadows, in Cubist fashion. Since the construction is made to imitate the simulated Juan Gris painting that hangs above it, the painting becomes a guide to understanding the distortions as pictorial codes challenging the boundaries between painting and sculpture. However, since this work is made of recognizable things whose usual shapes and forms are commonly known, the pictorial adjustments are also seen as distortions of reality. This strategy permits two ways of seeing and understanding simultaneously and gives the work a stake in the real, as well as in an imaginary, world. Although Cooper doesn’t resolve all the formal problems she creates, her works are nonetheless intriguing for the way they exploit furniture to create things that exist somewhere on the boundary between craft, painting, and sculpture.

Howard Risatti