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A Conversation with Curator Seth Pringle on the Occasion of the Exhibition "This Is Not a Chair," at the Claremont Lewis Museum of Art, by James Scarborough

This is not a chair”, opening on February 2nd at the Claremont Lewis Museum of Art, examines the intricate, sometimes blurred relationship between art and functionality. Inspired by Rene Magritte’s thought-provoking painting, “The Treachery of Images (“Ceci n’est pas une pipe”),” the show questions the essence of what constitutes a chair. It's an exhibition of chairs or objects for sitting as well as a storytelling medium, a tool for social engagement and a work of conceptual art. Mirroring Magritte’s challenge to perception, it presents a diverse array of artistic interpretations that span decades, from the 1960s to the contemporary era.

Below is an interview with Seth Pringle, the exhibition’s Curator.

JS: What sparked the idea for “This is Not a Chair” and how did that idea evolve into the current exhibition?

SP: I originally conceived of the exhibition while I was working at the Sam and Alfreda Maloof Foundation for Arts and Crafts. I joined the staff in February of 2020, just a few weeks before COVID shut everything down. When we eventually returned to on-site work, staff took turns working in person and I ended up spending many hours in the Maloof Historic Home by myself documenting the collection. It was just me and my thoughts surrounded by artistic genius and some of the finest craft objects ever created. It was quite a magical experience and definitely a silver lining of social distancing protocols. So, naturally, I was thinking a lot about Sam Maloof, furniture and the values imbued in functional objects. I’m interested in the blending of art and craft and find drawing hard lines between them to be an unnecessary limitation.

The exhibition is a riff off of Rene Magritte’s painting The Treachery of Images (otherwise known as This Is Not a Pipe), which places the statement “This is not a pipe.” under a painted representation of a pipe. I became fascinated with the painting after reading Michel Foucault’s 1973 book This Is Not a Pipe, which offers a deep dive into the philosophical implications of this seemingly simple statement of negation and contradiction.

When I assumed the role of lead curator at the Claremont Lewis Museum of Art, it was the perfect time to pursue the exhibition. The Claremont community has a strong connection to both arts and crafts and conceptual art. The exhibition evolved into a regional Southern California exhibition though, with artists from Los Angeles, San Diego and Pioneertown, in addition to Claremont and the Pomona Valley.

The show includes a diverse range of approaches to the idea of chair-ness. Some of the makers in the show identify as artists, some as woodworkers, some designers. By posing the question “What is a chair?” and juxtaposing these different creative approaches, I hope to insert some fluidity into our habits of concept formation.

JS: How do you see this exhibition fitting in with and speaking to contemporary themes and trends?

SP: The twentieth century was the century of the avant-garde and I believe we are now squarely in the post avant-garde. In what I see as a desperate effort to maintain a paradigm of progressive striving, many artists and curators chase politics. This usually involves preaching to the choir and virtue signaling, not the most fascinating recipe for art experiences, if you ask me. I’m interested in exchanging the mindset of manifest destiny for a less linear concept of time. The exhibition This is not a chair. offers an attempt at this by centering around what might be the oldest craft object in human history: the chair.  The show also spans nearly a century by utilizing Magritte’s painting from 1929 and art works spanning several decades. The chair offers endless opportunities for innovation while posing a timeless requirement of needing to relate to and support the human body.

JS: What were the key factors you considered when choosing artists for this exhibition, and how do they align with the exhibition’s theme?

SP: I suppose the most important factor for choosing work was whether I think it’s interesting. After that, I wanted to establish a constellation of approaches and aesthetics so that no one piece embodies the concept of the show. Each piece in the exhibition requires the others in order to be activated according to the theme. I wanted a range of approaches to functionality, to the chair as cultural signifier and social catalyst.

JS: Are there any artists or pieces in the exhibition that you feel are central to its theme, and why did you choose them?

SP: No, there aren’t any singular pieces that are central. As I touched on in my last answer, I wanted to create a decentralized framework, a constellation whose imagery is defined differently by each viewer with myriad entry points. I am really excited about an installation that Michael O’Malley has created that houses work by other artists from the show. It’s a little hard to explain (you have to go see it!) but it’s a wall/sculpture/bookshelf/display case. It’s a piece of furniture in a way. It contains custom made slots to hold books that have inspired the artists in the show as well as little viewing holes where you can see miniature chairs made by the artists. Michael talks about creating and engaging with an index of craft and I think this piece embodies that idea. It creates a nexus of the exhibition.

JS: How do you think this exhibition will challenge the audience’s traditional views of what constitutes a chair or furniture?

SP: I hope to prompt viewers to consider chairness as a mental construction. Once this concept is accepted, it naturally leads to really interesting questions like “If a tree falls in the forest, is it a chair?” I came up with this question as a humorous play on the old “If a tree falls in the forest” conundrum, but also to pose an important question in defining chairness: does it require human intent and/or alteration? Does a person have to strive for chairness and manipulate materials based on an idea of a chair in order for the resulting object to constitute a chair. There are all kinds of fun and interesting epistemological rabbit holes to go down using Magritte’s painting as a launching point.

JS: Were there any surprising challenges or insights you encountered while curating this exhibition?

SP: This might be completely tangential, but I’ve been thinking a lot about destruction. We’re including a sketchbook by Jack Rogers Hopkins in the exhibition. Hopkins was a visionary furniture maker who studied at Claremont Graduate School in the 1960s and then lived, worked and taught in San Diego. He has an important exhibition coming up at the Sam and Alfreda Maloof Foundation for Arts and Crafts curated by Katie Nartonis. If you’ve heard of Hopkins (and in my experience, most people haven’t), you’ve probably heard the story about how he destroyed his grand opus Womb Room in order to demonstrate to his students that artists must embrace destruction as part of the creative process. I was reading the brilliant catalog for the Hopkins exhibition and learned that Millard Sheets also destroyed some of his works with the help of his then assistant Sam Maloof! The essay describes how both Sheets and Hopkins had an interest in the teachings of Christian Science, which place an emphasis on the metaphysical potentials of prayer: “Both artists exhibited a practiced detachment from the precious nature of the physical art object, even an ability to destroy their own work if it no longer served a purpose.”

This anecdote acted as a bit of a particle collider for me and my other curatorial interests and showed me how seemingly disparate worlds of art can have much more in common than one might assume. For example, John Baldessari famously burned his paintings in 1970 at a crematorium as a performance/conceptual art piece in order to mark a break from his past (a death and resurrection?). Baldessari was closely tied to the group of groundbreaking performance artists of the late 60s and early 70s at Pomona College. This vein of Claremont art is sometimes situated in opposition to Millard Sheets and his legacy, but maybe Baldessari and Sheets had more in common than people like to admit.

Another connection this anecdote made for me is with our next exhibition, which will feature work by Charles Long and Khang Bao Nguyen, two artists who are interested in non-dualism, a way of recognizing the oneness of the universe. I see strong parallels between their interests and the metaphysical leanings of Christian Science.

JS: How do the pieces in the exhibition blend innovation with traditional concepts of chair design?

SP: I love Liz Nurenberg’s piece entitled Courting Chair. It’s basically a seat for two that rocks back and forth while the two sitters are facing each other but also sitting side by side.  It makes you think about furniture and posture in relation to human interaction. A piece like that might prompt you to think about how the posture of a Sam Maloof chair might influence the social interactions of its sitter. Ryan Taber’s sculpture In Permanent Recline: After Sergio Rodrigues and Peter Wilhelm Lund also addresses the concept of posture but places it in the context of modernism and the nationalism of 1950s Brazilian politics.

JS: What impact do you hope the exhibition will have on the way people think about art and functionality in everyday objects?

SP: I hope that the exhibition might prompt people to ask more questions about objects which they’ve perhaps previously taken for granted, questions like: How does the posture of this chair affect me and my relationship to my environment? Or, what values are instilled in the making of this chair and how does it reflect or subvert culture? Adam John Manley’s version of a waterboarding chair, Ordinary Rendition: WTRBRD, from the exhibition offers some very challenging and fascinating questions in this regard.

JS: How do you think the themes in “This is Not a Chair” will influence future exhibitions or your approach to curating?

SP: One of my goals with this exhibition is to create an exhibition that explores deep questions but also humor and a bit of fun. I hope that it offers different experiences to different viewers. So, I’m curious to see how successful the exhibition might be and how it might inform my approach to other shows.

JS: What kind of experience do you hope the audience will have, and what do you want them to take away from the exhibition?

SP: I hope to see a lot of smiles in the galleries. I hope the show will spark a sense of wonder. I hope they take away a heightened appreciation for chairness and all of its complexities.

Artists: Jane Brucker, Adam Friedman/Geology Studio, Jack Rogers Hopkins, Michael LeVell, Sam Maloof, Adam John Manley, Mike & Stephen Johnson/Sam Maloof Woodworker Inc., Doug McClellan, Jorge Moawad/Luz de Mano, Chuck Moffit, John Niero/Just Not Normal, Liz Nurenberg, Michael O’Malley, Mark Posey, Peter Shelton, John Svenson, Ryan Taber, Dave Tourje, Lauren Verdugo, Sarah Watlington, Larry White, Michael Woodcock.

Watlington Heron

Sarah Watlington, Heron Chair, 2019, Claro Walnut. Photo credit: Todd Sorenson

Nurenberg CourtingChair

Liz Nurenberg, Courting Chair, 2015, Wood, Foam, and Vinyl. Photo credit: Liz Nurenberg

Niero J-lowJohn Niero of Just Not Normal, J-low Chaise and Table/Ottoman, 2007, fiberglass prototype. Photo credit: Charles Impstepf


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