Seventeen spartan benches rest in a white-walled room with one window and overhead lighting. On display at Murray Guy, the benches are the result of years of exacting effort by artist Francis Cape to record and reproduce the humble seats of America’s intentional communities. These groups were the country’s 19th-century utopian experiment: the Shakers, Separatists of Zoar, Hutterites, and others who sought an alternative way of living. At once honest reproductions and unique appropriations, the benches evoke historical community and an egalitarian ethos; at the same time, they foster the potential for short chats, temporary assemblies — a turn away from the individual in the era of the iPhone.
For the current show, Cape has arranged the benches in four parallel rows, roughly equally spaced and equally long, the idea being to view them as a group. Indeed, there is a unity about them, linked by their shared ethos and similar appearance. A skilled woodcarver, Cape handcrafted the benches using the same poplar wood and finish. The full endeavor, including detailed records of the benches (so you can make your own), is compiled in Cape’s associated book, We Sit Together: Utopian Benches from the Shakers to the Separatists of Zoar.
But, as within any community, differences drift across the benches, their very unity providing the lens through which to spot and underscore discrepancies: most are symmetrical in design but not all; the majority are similar in length, though one can accommodate just one sitter while others could fit a whole family; some feature legs with triangular cutouts at their bases, others an arch. In their unity lies heightened diversity.
Moreover, depending on the number of people in the gallery, the benches and the space they modify can feel vastly different. Alone with the benches, you’re inclined to notice their artistic qualities, reflecting on them as visual objects. In those moments, the benches loom like clenched fights, latent and sculptural. With a group, however, the benches evoke a potential for conversation and contact, and thoughts shift to the intentional communities and their legacies. It’s the interplay of the benches, their histories commingling with the potential of people, that animate the work. One has to wonder if the benches themselves create this. After all, if Cape had designed a room full of subway benches, would anyone be talking?
These fleeting, dependent communities are the spontaneous product of multiple viewers randomly congregating in the same gallery at the same time. The benches, which have been exhibited at Arcadia University, Maine College of Arts, and Skidmore College, have also always been accompanied by planned gatherings, seeking to put the idea into action. During the current show at Murray Guy, one such scheduled meeting was facilitated by Cape and artist Josiah McElheny. While largely a conventional art talk, the two did lead an honest and open discussion, with the audience frequently contributing. Cape discussed some of the uncertainty of the project, particularly his role as “creator” of benches that aren’t his designs but reproductions of the work of anonymous craftsman.
At no point did I feel a powerful sense of connection and community locking me in place; yet the dialogue grew out of common space and interests, and many remained long after the discussion had ended. Subtlety defines this work — small differences, overlapping hopes, a quiet tension. Cape’s admitted apprehension, for example: The benches may be viewed as naked copies, benevolent appropriations, or unique duplicates. Are they an arbitrary collection or an indivisible unit? Artifacts of bygone communities or seeds of potential new ones? The value of these tensions is that they aren’t mutually exclusive.
Whether the thoughtful conversations this careful exhibition brings about will have any power or life beyond the friendly gallery walls is a valid question, the art world equivalent of a street protest. But by striving for potential, Cape poses deceptively fresh and important questions about the value of reproduction, the historical memory of materials, and the importance of community in our post-Occupy era.
Francis Cape: Utopian Benches continues at Murray Guy (453 West 17th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through August 9.