Remember that oft-quoted line from Matisse about wanting his paintings to be like comfortable armchairs? That quotation is a perfect example of a meme, an idea whose viability is measured not by its content but by its capacity to self-perpetuate and mutate or evolve. Like so many historical statements, this one has become unmoored from its original context, and even its original wording as I have purposely done above. When most people cite it, they are really only citing the general idea, not the quotation itself. Matisse wanted you to feel like you are sitting in a comfortable easy chair when you look at his paintings—that is what the statement has become. And depending on whose side you’re on, it’s either damning proof that Matisse was just a decorative painter of prettiness or a strong argument for making pleasant art. And just as this phenomenon of words being repeated, altered and re-authored exists, there are always historians to come along to “set things straight,” further contributing to the statement’s de-authorship. In any case, the idea of a painting being a comfortable armchair is just as ubiquitous as painting being dead, a statement that is simultaneously stable and in flux.
The quote comes up a lot. And it definitely occurred to me while looking at James Krone’s installation “Trickle Down Ergonomics” at Kavi Gupta Gallery. The works on view are repeated vignettes selected from various series the artist has been focusing on. There are the “Chair Paintings,” the ostensibly black monochrome “Ceremonial Paintings” the “Ashtrays” and one example of his “Sigil” paintings.
The Chair Paintings (2010) are a series of four paintings based on the flower print cushions of white plastic-coated wire patio chairs from the artist’s studio. In the exhibition, the resultant paintings are paired with their corresponding chairs. Looking from the paintings to the chairs, and back again, I thought of that Matisse quote, especially with Chair Painting I & II. Finding historical connections has become a reflex rather than a conscious act. Looking back to the painting, with its rich and almost neon hues opaquely laid over muddy gray-ed out washes, and then returning to the muted dullness of the same image on the chair’s padding, I thought: these paintings are much more comfortable than those chairs…
The paintings are fresh and ripe, but enclose the dinginess of the padding they draw from. The chairs look awful. Perhaps it’s their uninviting quality under stark fluorescent lights or their location in a pristine gallery, but it never occurred to me to sit in them. The chairs are also anthropomorphized: they are facing the paintings, as if looking at them; they are not suggesting you sit on them to look at the paintings. They seem sad, as though they are gazing at themselves in the mirror, maybe their younger self even. Their profane selves in the real world are made beautiful through portrait painting, a sort of reverse of The Picture of Dorian Gray, sublimated through furniture.
While all these connections are being made, the paintings are still there as solid works of art in and of themselves. Aside from reaching out into “real life” in dialogue with the chairs, there is a lot going on within them. I wonder if in some ways presenting this literal relationship between artwork and source material detracts from the paintings themselves. It can be a little gimmicky. But there is something brazen and knowing about the arrangement. Rather than coming off as pleased in their own cleverness, the arrangement seems rather blunt and up front—here are paintings and the chairs that inspired them. Having the chairs present encourages the viewer to enter at the macro level, comparing the painting as a singular object to the chair, rather than examining all the things going on in the painting.
Within each Chair Painting, and between them, there is a lot of substantive content in regards to patterning and repetition. There is the manner in which Krone has made four separate and complete paintings out of this banal kitsch. They are not precise deadpan representations of their patterned fabric cousins. They have that source embedded within them, but they are also free painterly paintings, not chained to slavishly reproducing the appearance of the source. In a way, they are the same painting four times, since the pattern from the fabric is the same. The only difference, which makes all the difference, is that the patterning never lines up the same way—it shifts. This subtle inconsistency makes for a notably different composition each time around.
Repetition that shows its seams could be the guiding principle of the installation, as variously placed throughout the gallery along with the Chair Paintings are other works that deal with repetition and reiteration in their own ways. In the Ceremonial Painting I – III (2010, example seen above), somewhat black paintings are made up of several layers of off-register blue squares. With each layered square the area gets closer to black and glossier. They are almost impossible to see straight on, and are only activated as you walk past them, watching them shimmer as each layer catches the light.
The ashtrays, Ashtray I – V (2010, seen at left), are birch branches that have been crudely made to stand upright by casting concrete and aluminum foil around their bases. Sculpturally they resemble totems or stubbed out cigarettes but they are also functioning ashtrays; just barely. The ends of the branches have been carved out and sand placed in the crater. But for such a large apparatus, an area smaller than a pop can in diameter is devoted to its actual utility. The other factor rendering them useless is their situation in a gallery in a non-smoking building. When shown in L.A., they were used appropriately. Krone remarked how they lose their preciousness when used. There is something about crossing that uncanny valley between viewer and object that a stark gallery space sets up. Indeed this is the case with the chairs as well.
When I met James this summer in Berlin, we hung out in his apartment studio sitting in those very chairs talking and they seemed more than adequate. Seeing them in the gallery, they felt alien, foreign and off limits. Presented in this manner they become self-conscious. “I can’t believe we sat in those!” I thought. Not that they are particularly disgusting, just that they seem so different and familiar at the same time. It’s this “difference beyond difference” that Boris Groys talks about in his essay “On the New” when discussing the nature of collecting and presenting everyday objects in an art environment. Art allows us to contemplate things in a way might not otherwise be able to or even consider, but in order to do that, occasionally it must also create a distance.