The exhibition “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. Each somewhat different from the next, the benches were made from poplar sourced near Cape’s studio in Narrowsburg, N.Y., and were 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 shallow 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. For his research, Cape traveled to various settlements, such as those of the Hutterites and the Oneida Perfectionists, taking careful notes on the architectural habits of each colony. The benches in the exhibition are replicas of pieces found at the sites. Cape explains in his introduction: “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 recent discussion at Murray Guy that the dissimulative rhetoric of the Bush White House led him to reject illusion in his work; he ceased making things that were useless outside of their short-lived, site-specific aesthetic purpose.
Given the centrality of this supplemental discourse—the book, the gallery discussions—and given the fact that the benches only really seemed like art because they were in a gallery, the most interesting question here was: 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.
Beyond the artist’s explicit wish to present an alternative to capitalistic profiteering, the exhibition’s hard-hitting statement was about what the utopian benches do not do. The show suggested that if art must itself renounce illusion in order to break through the veil that mainstream political discourse hangs before our eyes, then art is defunct. This dilemma of the art object that resists identification as such perhaps indicates some large unresolved problems in art practice in the wake of the postmodern.