“Utopian Benches” was wood craftsman-cum-installation artist Francis Cape’s sixth solo at Murray Guy. It consisted of 17 benches placed in rows throughout the gallery. The benches, each somewhat different than the next, are made from poplar sourced near Cape’s studio in Narrowburg, N.Y., and finished with linseed oil. To light upon the varied particulars of mechanics and ornamentation—between a seat with rounded edges and one with a sharp cut, between the wide swell of a decorative s-curve and a plank carved with a shallower arc—required careful attention, the reward for which was a slowly emergent world of sculptural nuance.
Cape exhibits his benches with the intention that they will be used for public lectures and discussions, thus offering a completely utilitarian object. His new book frames the current show as a project of historical recuperation with political ends: We Sit Together: Utopian Benches from the Shakers to the Separatists of Zoar (Princeton, 2013), displayed at the gallery entrance, aligns each bench with a specific American utopian community established during the last 250 years. Cape thus conceives of the exhibition as a material framework for lively human fellowship. To write the book, Cape traveled to the various settlements of groups such as the Hutterites and Oneida Perfectionists, taking careful notes on the architectural habits of each colony. The benches in the exhibition are exact replicas of pieces found at the sites. Cape’s introduction explains: “I made the sculpture as a way of thinking—and talking—about communalism as both a historic and contemporary alternative to individualism.”
Over the years, Cape’s work has grown more explicitly functional. His installations from the early 2000s—453 West 17th Street, Fayerweather Hall and 258 Main Street—were false walls, or rectangular sections of ornamental molding only subtly distinguished from the gallery’s existing architecture. For Cape, the utility of a made object has come to stand for the measure of its resistance to political coercion. He related in a talk at Murray Guy that it was the dissimulative rhetoric of the Bush White House that led him to reject illusion in his work, trading fiberboard for poplar as his medium and ceasing to make things that were useless outside of their short-lived, site-specific aesthetic purpose.
Given the centrality of supplemental discourse—the book, the gallery discussions—to the current work’s conceptual intent, and given the fact that the benches only really seem like art because they are in a gallery, the most interesting question is: why make art that tries not to be art? Historically, furniture-as-sculpture has implied both a desire to subvert norms (as in Duchamp’s readymades) and an effort to determine what art is by pondering exactly what it is not. I think that Cape imagines this juncture of opposites as a crucial locus of political tension and a hypothetical jumping-off point from which art’s future direction might be explored.
Cape objects to the agglomeration of mass signifiers that obscures the real conditions of lived life. Beyond the artist’s explicit wish to present an alternative to capitalistic profiteering, the hard-hitting statement that the exhibition made is a statement about what the utopian benches do not do. If, to dodge the veil that mainstream political discourse hangs before our eyes, art must itself renounce illusion, then art is defunct. For Cape to present his sculpture as the functional scaffolding for sincere discourse, avoiding the purely aesthetic in the interests of serviceable craftsmanship, is a self-negating act. This dilemma of the art-object that resists identification as such perhaps indicates what will be a crucial problematic of art practice in the wake of the postmodern.