Chair | Mary A. Kelly at Galeria Voss, Düsseldorf, Germany

Chair | Mary A. Kelly at Galeria Voss, Düsseldorf, Germany


14/03/2020 - 09/05/2020    


Galerie Voss
Mühlengasse 3, 40213 Düsseldorf

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Singing to the Empty Chairs

David Galloway (1937 – 2019)

A chair is still a chair,
Even when there’s no one sitting there.
But a chair is not a house
And a house is not a home
When there’s no one there to hold you tight
And no one there you can kiss goodnight.

Bert Bachrach, A House is Not a Home

In one of his most touching romantic ballads, first performed in 1967, Bert Bachrach reflected on the independence and dignity of an empty chair, even when standing alone in a loveless house. Portraits of empty chairs have now become the focus of a remarkable series of paintings by Mary Kelly. Rendered singly or in pairs, they open up volumes of cultural history and encourage unlimited excursions into an entire panoply of disciplines: philosophy, film, archaeology, fashion, psychiatry, politics, design, architecture, music, poetry, painting and sculpture. For those familiar with the artist’s photographic accomplishments, her large-format, meticulously detailed paintings may come as a surprise. Yet this ongoing series owes much to themes addressed over the years in the artist’s photographic works, as well. Chairs have long been principal players in the comédie humaine that she has repeatedly explored. And each player has his own story to tell. As she herself recently described the process:

This project actually started many years ago, while taking part in a group
therapy process. The simplicity of the room and the depth of life
experienced in that space led me to explore many similar rooms with my
camera. Eventually my focus became the chair as a construct aside from life
and a witness to life. The exploration extended to chairs beyond the
psychotherapeutic rooms into other living rooms. The intimate space of the
psychotherapeutic experience opens out into a broader public space and life
Itself. Eventually the paintbrush took the place of the camera.

No other piece of furniture can claim such a complex associative heritage as the chair. When one thinks of the name “Thonet,” for example, the word “chair” comes to mind automatically, though the Austrian company that in 1856 patented its mechanical process for mass-producing bentwood furniture made settees, hat-stands, tables and cupboards, as well. There are, so far as I know, no table museums on the planet, but a number of chair museums, the most enlightening of which is part of the Vitra Design Museum in Weil-am-Rhine. Though dedicated to furniture design in general, primary focus has always been on the chair – humble, exotic, eccentric, innovative, merely functional. Language itself reflects this rich diversity: the word “chair” is both noun and verb, as well as the root of numerous commonplace idioms: one can chair a meeting, “go to the chair” at San Quentin, play “first chair” with the symphony, “fall off one’s chair” with surprise, “sit on the edge of one’s chair” in suspense, even play a game of “musical chairs” to round off an evening.

How can one account for the virtually universal significance of this quotidian object? A large part of its resonance comes without doubt from the chair’s anthropomorphic associations. It has a back and a seat, legs, feet and often arms, as well. And beyond this fundamentally “humanized” structure, its species embrace a wide range of specialized functions, giving us dining and opera and garden and desk and deck and nursing and potty and electric and office and dental and barber, wheel- and high- and bergére and recliner and slipper and swivel and sedan and lounge and shooting and cantilever and café and campaign and club and office and folding and camping and rocking chairs. The eccentric French designer-architect Phillippe Stark added to the inventory with his celebrated “Ghost Chair” in transparent Plexiglas. In general, chair designers have been particularly receptive to new materials and industrial techniques. The Danish designer Verner Panton introduced the first injection-molded polypropylene chair in 1967, which now carries his name. Its descendants are legion – alas, even at the bottom of the sea.

The innovations of Panton and Stark can be seen in a long and intriguing tradition of architects’ chairs. For Karl Friedrich Schinkel, that commonplace, utilitarian piece of furniture became a metaphor, a kind of distillation, of the classicistic aesthetic. At the beginning of the last century, the Thonet company invited architects to design new models using the technology of their bentwood furniture. Responses came from such modernist giants as Otto Wagner, Marcel Breuer, Le Corbusier and Mies Van der Rohe. In other cases, designs for a new building were often accompanied by furniture designs that “anchored” the architect’s aesthetic vision within the building itself. Antonio Gaudi and Frank Lloyd Wright offer prime examples. The French designer Pierre Paulin, on the other hand, was challenged with creating rooms that offered an intentional contrast to the historic building of which they were a part, Paris’s Elysée Palace. In 1964 the newly elected President Georges Pompidou, himself a collector of modern and contemporary art, entrusted the designer with restyling a series of rooms in the palace, preferably using industrial materials like neon and plastic. It was no surprise that chairs – both armchairs and swiveling dining chairs – set the tone for this elaborate makeover.

Yet despite its capacity for innovation and adaptation (the seat increasing in width, for example, to accommodate the fashion for hoopskirts), there have been few actual “improvements” in the chair’s roughly 5,000-year history. As architect-author Wiltold Rybcznski argues in his recent book Now I Sit Me Down (2016), “If you’re sitting in a Windsor chair, that’s the same chair, for all practical purposes, that George Washington and Benjamin Franklin sat in.” The history of the chair, he argues, is less evolutionary than it is cultural. “The way we choose to sit, and what we choose to sit on, says a lot about us: our tastes, the things we hold dear.” The first chair the author was able to identify in the historical record was not an actual physical one but a sculptural relief from the Cycladic Islands, dated to the period 2800-2700 B.C. It depicts a musician playing a harp while sitting in what looks like a common kitchen chair, with a straight back and four curved legs. Yet we also know, of course, that the ancient Aztecs, the Chinese and Egyptians often embellished the structure with elaborate carvings, inlays, polychrome and lacquer work, principally to announce the status of the sitter. With such refinements, a chair could also be elevated to a throne, proclaiming a sitter’s status and offering it legitimation.

The elevation was often physical as well as symbolic, with the chair placed on a dais or at the top of a flight of stairs. (Hence, monarchs are said to “ascend” to the throne.) Sometimes the metamorphosis reveals unintentional incongruity, as in the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. There one of America’s most beloved presidents, cherished as a simple man of the people, is depicted sitting on a massive, cross-framed “curule,” a folding chair that in ancient Greece symbolized power and authority and was thus reserved for the use of magistrates and military leaders. A similar transfer of authority from chair to sitter can be found in traditional sets of dining chairs, with arms frequently added to the seats of host and hostess to underscore their status.

The signal quality of chairs was hardly lost on Hollywood or on the television industry. In The Great Dictator, Chaplin uses chairs to assert the Führer’s superiority over Mussolini, while a transvestite Norman Bates assumes his mother’s rocking chair in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, and a victim’s inability to rise from his chair anticipates his murder in The Godfather. In the opening sequence of Cabaret, a simple black chair becomes a virtual dancing partner for Lisa Minelli. The so-called “Egg Chair,” designed by Arne Jacobsen, has recently enjoyed a brisk revival thanks to Men in Black. In The Lord of the Rings, Gondor’s towering throne establishes his superiority to the small, black, hunched seat of his steward Denethor II. In The Seven Chairs Mel Brooks built an entire picaresque film around the search for a family treasure concealed in one of seven dining-room chairs, dispersed throughout Russia. But the greatest winner was the Hollywood Western, in which no saloon fight was complete without dozens of chairs (and tables and barstools) being smashed over the heads of rowdy clients. Hundreds of thousands if not millions of so-called breakaway chairs “bit the dust” in such melees. Made of feather-light balsawood, they cheerfully splintered on request.

Given its seemingly endless associations, its symbolic as well as its physical modulations, the chair would prove a favorite subject for artists, particularly in the 19th and 20th centuries. One of the most charming of those is Jean Frédéric Bazille’s portrait of fellow student and flat-mate Auguste Renoir, painted in 1867. The subject does not sit in a chair but perches on it in a squatting position, his feet on the seat and not on the floor and his hands on his knees. Nothing could be farther from the traditional rules governing portraiture. (Renoir returned the compliment in the same year with a casual portrait of Bazille.) Conspicuous here is that the chair is not simply a “support” for the impish sitter but an essential part of the work, an eloquent accessory that underscores the emergence of the revolutionary attitudes that would lead to Impressionism.

The comic dimension here is far from the loneliness characterizing the chairs of Vincent van Gogh. Despite its light-filled surrounding, the empty, crudely constructed Chair with Vincent’s Pipe (1888), standing on simple terracotta tiles, has a forlorn air, a sense of loss, perhaps reflecting his bitter disappointment that he could attract so few artist friends to his cherished “atelier of the south.” The implied despair deepens in Old Man in Sorrow (1890), where a strikingly similar chair offers support to a grieving man. The temperamental Gauguin eventually came to visit, of course, but was far from the companion for which the Dutch artist yearned. When van Gogh painted Gauguin’s chair, it was a considerably more elegant model with status-giving arms, positioned on an oriental carpet. In a letter written two years later, long after Gauguin’s stormy departure, he described it as made of “somber reddish-brown wood, the seat of greenish straw, and in the absent one’s place a lighted torch and modern novels.” Taken together, the chairs amount to psychograms of their respective occupants as the artist saw them. For that reason alone, they can be seen as forerunners of Mary Kelly’s chairs, which for all their objective realism have a compelling emotional resonance.

Far from being mere pieces of furniture, they are charged with narrative, as underscored by their highly personal titles. Some of these, like Stretch out your hand and keep going, keep going to fuck, are taken from song texts, others from favorite poems. Some of Kelly’s “sitters” are elegant, others commonplace, but all are treated equally and equally transformed by the painterly act. One of the most improbable and exhilarating of these metamorphoses can be observed in a state-of-the-art wheelchair, entitled Cry freedom. Tightly framed within the canvas, the black “machine” might have come from the props department for Star Wars, yet there is no sense of menace here and certainly nothing of the slapstick exploited in Dr. Strangelove. Far more, it seems to beckon with hope, succor and – above all – with mobility. Knowing that the chair belongs to the artist’s cherished brother Paul underscores this aura but does not create it. That is the work of the painter.

In art of the modern period, there seem to be no limits to the starring roles played by the humble chair. It was the primary source for Pablo Picasso’s Still-life with Chair Caning (1912), which combined painting with an oval of oilcloth printed with the pattern of caning used in traditional café chairs, a “framing” piece of rope and various other non-painterly materials. The work is often regarded as the first use of assemblage, at once provocative and prophetic. With his Fat Chair (1963), supporting a bulky wedge of solidified coconut fat, Joseph Beuys sought to overturn traditional expectations of the medium in terms of his own idiosyncratic theory of “social sculpture.” Andy Warhol’s silkscreened Electric Chair (a motif first used in 1963), rendered in bright sorbet colors, is a kind of icon of the Pop Art movement. In Robert Rauschenberg’s Soundings (1968), a 36-feet-wide installation is activated through sounds made by those who view it. What they perceive in lightning-like flashes is a topsy-turvy ensemble of plain wooden chairs.

The chair, in fact, runs like a leitmotif throughout Rauschenberg’s work, starting with the painting Pilgrim (1960), for which an actual chair was attached to the canvas. The assemblage – a “combine painting” in Rauschenberg’s terminology – may well echo Merce Cunningham’s choreography for Antic Meet (1958), for which the artist was a collaborator. Cunningham danced the entire piece with a chair fastened to his back. In Pina Bausch’s Café Muller (1978), her own most frequently performed choreography, a somnambulant wanders through a room cluttered with chairs, while a frantic guest seeks to clear the way and save her from harm. In Eugène Ionesco’s The Chairs, often labeled a “tragic farce,” a husband and wife continuously arrange and rearrange chairs for invited guests who presumably exist solely in their own imaginations.

For the German photographer Jürgen Klauke, plain black chairs – sometimes stacked into teetering towers – become fellow-performers in compositions that owe much to the slapstick tradition. Multimedia artist Robert Wilson has regularly designed unique chairs for his own theatrical performances, as well as seven limited-edition chairs for Kartell, an Italian design company, and his own private collection boasts more than 1,000 acquisitions. In an interview with the New York Times, he explained his unusual passion with a childhood anecdote:

When I was 8 years old, I went to visit my uncle, who lived in the White
Sands desert in New Mexico. He had a white adobe house, and he lived like
a monk. It was very simple: a mattress on the floor and a Navajo blanket and
some Native American pots. There was one chair in this small house, and I
said to him, “That’s a beautiful chair.” And at Christmas, he sent me the
chair for a Christmas present. It was thin and narrow, a wooden chair. As a
very young man growing up in Texas, usually I got a shotgun or cowboy
boots for Christmas. When I was 17, my cousin – my uncle’s son – wrote
me a letter and said, “My father sent you this chair, and it’s mine, and I’d
like to have it back.” I sent it to him, and from that day on I started collecting
chairs. I do still collect chairs.

For his first play, Wilson designed chairs to reflect his characters: Freud, Nijinsky, Queen Victoria, Joseph Stalin and Albert Einstein. The latter was made of plumbing pipes, since Eisenstein had once remarked that if he had to live his life over, he’d be a plumber. “Chairs,” Wilson reflects, “are like sculpture. The way the Greeks made statues of gods of their times, many of my chairs represented contemporary gods.” When asked if he had favorites in his own collection, the artist responded, “Mmmm, no. It’s difficult to say that, because they’re like our children. They don’t like it if you have a favorite.” Yet most sitters have a favorite chair or a type of chair that particularly suits them. In Amor Towles’ bravura novel A Gentleman in Moscow (2016), the resilient aristocratic hero, Count Alexander Rostov, loses his family’s estate, then is forced to leave his elegant hotel suite for a cramped maid’s room in the hotel attic. Yet he is content so long as he can find his equilibrium with the aid of a ladderback chair, tilted back “until it was balanced on its two rear legs,” where he could comfortably read – a habit formed in childhood at Idlehour, his family’s sumptuous country house. It comes as no surprise that A Gentleman in Moscow is one of Mary Kelly’s favorite novels.

A particularly touching homage to the chair was made by Alberto Giacometti in 1963. While convalescing from major surgery for stomach cancer, the Swiss-born artist lived in a series of Parisian hotels, where he produced luminous drawings of his surroundings. As he recorded in his journal, “I could spend the rest of my life simply drawing two chairs and a table. It would be necessary to sacrifice both painting and sculpture and the head and everything and to reduce oneself to staying in a room, in front of the same table, the same tablecloth and the same chair, and to do only that.” Like Count Rostov, the Swiss sculptor finds his peace with the aid of a humble chair. For Mary Kelly, too, the chair offers a door to the inner life, to contemplation and to conversation. In those paintings depicting a pair of chairs – like the diptych Stretch out your hand or Private and Confidential or Our Father, Hail Mary, he opened his eyes wide and held mine – the very positioning of the chairs suggests at least the hope of conversation. Or perhaps documents a conversation recently concluded. “They are a trace left behind by the sitter,” Mary Kelly has explained. “Their essence as a metaphor for the human support structure is almost like a portrait without the ‘figure’. They are the trace left behind by the sitter. I want the viewer to project into that space.”

Paradoxically, a major antecedent to these recent works can be found in Asylum (2005), a photographic series that Kelly made at a former psychiatric clinic in which few chairs are actually visible. In addition to graffiti scratched into walls and columns, what one sees are the scuff marks and cigarette burns in the cheap linoleum flooring on which chairs once stood, mute witnesses to hopeless, endless waiting. Such desolate images stand in sharp contrast to a later series, made in a private residence in Provence in 2015 and 2016 that often shows two chairs standing in a relationship suggestive of dialogue, perhaps even of exchanged intimacies and confessions. “A thousand stories and personalities emanated from their arrangements,” she explains. “They represented a lifetime of subtle collection and placement.” Such works are love songs: love songs from the heart. Indeed, one of the most intriguing is entitled She sang from the heart. That intimate engagement with the subject is further evidenced in Kelly’s painstaking sense of craft: in the warm glow of wood, the coldness of metal, the textured sheen of velvet, the creased ruggedness of leather, the glow of silk. The very act of painting, the joy in painting, is perhaps the “real” subject of these works rather than the actual physical objects depicted here.

Though the viewer may be excused who initially sees these chair-portraits as a kind of hyper- or photorealism, a closer look quickly dispels that reaction. The paintings of Richard Estes, Don Eddy, Robert Goings and Robert Cottingham are essentially (and intentionally) undercooled and detached, holding themselves aloof from their subjects. Mary A. Kelly’s portraits are emotionally, even psychologically engaged, as suggested by Let us lick our glossiest lips at the varying variance, the highly formalistic painting of the couch in Sigmund Freud’s Viennese consulting rooms. (The chair on which the master always sat, elevated above his patient, is not visible yet nearly palpable.) Here Kelly’s technical mastery in depicting the intricate patterns of three different Persian carpets is extraordinary. In Add and subtract the marks, poke my fingers through and even my head, a mass-manufactured plastic chair assumes an unexpected dignity, aided and abetted by its setting – the glossy wainscoting, the patina of the worn wooden floor and the glistening light that creates a luminous halo on the seat of the chair. (It was this picture that won Kelly the Royal College of Surgeons annual Art Award in 2019.) Photography exerts an undeniable influence on such recent works – most obviously, in the framing of the image or the orchestration of light and shadow. HBut here’re the stroke of the brush is in firm command, coaxing the canvas into multifaceted life. Each individual image in Mary A, Kelly’s “portrait gallery” harbors traces of narrative, fragments of prayer and of song, whispered intimacies, and each bears witness to the sheer alchemy of painting.

David Galloway is a curator, critic and novelist who has taught at universities in the United States, England and Germany, where he held the Chair of American Studies at the Ruhr University. He served as Chief Curator of the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art and has organized exhibitions for the Ludwig Forum (Aachen), the Venice and Liverpool Biennials and London’s Saatchi Gallery. He is a member of the Royal Society of Art.

Image: Mary A. Kelly, Cry Freedom, Oil on canvas 2018 / 150 x 150 cm

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