Stepping into Jessi Reaves’s show at Bridget Donahue gallery, I was at once slightly thrown by the sense of having entered a showroom display. For the New York-based artist’s first solo exhibition at the gallery, she has filled the room with an assortment of furniture: seemingly scattered arbitrarily in the expansive space are chairs, tables, shelves, and other furnishings.
Sculpted from plywood, foam, oriental strand board, sawdust, and other raw materials, these pieces strip bare what we usually see as upholstered, painted, and polished. Rather than coming off as uniform, manufactured objects, however, they maintain an air of whimsy, with undulating forms and an array of textures that tickle the senses. You feel that each of these has a personality, making for something both functional and visually indulging.
One of my favorite pieces is “Trunk Bed Box (Weather)” (2016), a trunk that resembles a small coffin. Its sterling board walls, with their variegated surface of fragmented wood, has an off-putting roughness that threatens to give you a splinter or two; but lined with milky-hued ruffles of foam, it also tempts you to enter — or at least prod its plushness. The cushioning even appears to spill out from the chest, like whipped cream gratuitously smeared on a dessert, ready to dribble at any moment.
It’s this blending of the seemingly sumptuous with stiff, uncomfortable material that make Reaves’s pieces particularly alluring. A chair titled “Bitches Bonnet Seat” (2016) veils a foam-based core in nylon that Reaves has embroidered with ornate floral patterns. While the foam here seems like it would feel itchy, the delicate, lace-like cover softens it. The fabric also imparts a past elegance that lends the whole piece a touch of romance — this is the sort of chair I imagine would be at home in the once-glorious mansion of Miss Havisham. Also consider “Bad House Shelf,” a twisted wooden wall rack pierced by a bolster-like structure made of black leather. The sleek and smooth column, restrained by the wooden shelves, offers a BDSM aesthetic (also alluded to by the work’s title) that satisfies through its hint of provocative pleasure.
Evident throughout all the works is Reaves’s handiwork that adds an additional ruggedness to each of her objects. She has made little effort to cover up some of the details that suggest her process, from lines of ink on wood — meant to guide her cutting — to dried nuggets of glue, to the puckers on soft surfaces made from fastened staples. Such a revealing of the furniture’s anatomy celebrates individual craftsmanship over mass manufactured objects. Two pieces on view particularly express this: labeled “Noguchi Knockoffs,” a pair of glass-top tables mimick the widely produced modernist design by Isamu Noguchi, except one replaces the traditional hardwood legs with detached Jeep Cherokee fenders; the other, cedar chips and sawdust. Reaves’s playful updates are desirous of furniture with more character and presence, urging that the objects with which we choose to surround ourselves should not have to forgo charisma for functionality.
Jessi Reaves continues at Bridget Donahue (99 Bowery, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through June 5.
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