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Francis Cape @ SFAI

Francis Cape's "Utopian Benches"  
Francis Cape’s display of backless benches, recreated by the artist from those built and used in utopian religious communities in North America, reveals more than just stunning craftsmanship.  This "faith-based" furniture, as Roberta Smith called it, lends credence to the old adage, also cited by Smith, that God resides in the details.  
Which god that is you can decide after you test sit the benches.  The thing to know about Cape, a master woodworker, is this: He visited these “intentional communities” and made copious notes on their materials and methods, then proceeded to craft meticulous copies of designs from 12 communities, the oldest of which date to the early 18th century.  They include: Ephrata Cloister (Pennsylvania), Hutterites (Alberta), Separatists of Zoar (Ohio), Shakers (Massachusetts), Community of True Inspiration (Iowa) and Pennsylvania Dutch.  Working with Poplar harvested near his studio in upstate New York, Cape made a total of 20 benches, 17 of which are on view here. They transform the Walter and McBean Galleries into a chapel of minimalist furniture, an effect amplified by the space itself: a high-ceilinged, split-level structure into which light streams from a wrap-around terrace that commands a near-panoramic view of the Bay. 
Installation at Arcadia University, 2011

When I visited the gallery was empty.  That facilitated one aspect of what Cape is aiming for: an environment for solitary contemplation.  The other aspect, the activation of social space, was achieved a few days later at the show’s opening, where, as photos reveal, visitors were intensely engaged with the art and with each other.  Cape sees his work as social sculpture, and rightly so. Give people an interesting places to perch and they'll do so.  The loftier, less easily grasped part of his project is how design reflects values and encourages community and equality through the shared experience — of praying, eating and meeting.  That would necessarily exclude most of us.  

That, in turn, casts doubt on whether the mindset Cape seeks to reveal is knowable to those who live outside the communities from which these designs originated.  How, for example, can we understand the reality of the Ephrata Cloister?  Its members, first convened in Pennsylvania in 1732, rise from wood sleeping benches every night at midnight to see if the Second Coming is at hand.  We can sit on benches and think what we like; but no amount of meditation is going to connect us with that reality. (Note: Examples of Ephrata benches are not displayed; but others, with similar characteristics, are.) 
Opening reception: SFAI January 30, 2014 

Thus, the exhibit’s appeal rests most tangibly with the objects themselves: with their exquisite joinery, simplicity, subtle variations, and, their relationship to Minimalism — Donald Judd’s furniture and the Rothko Chapel being two examples that spring immediately to mind. After that, it’s the quirks that command attention.  One bench, identified as “Pennsylvania German,” is a just a skinny plank, not even as wide as a sawhorse, and too tall to sit on without dangling your legs.  Another, designed by Shakers of Hancock, Massachusetts, more closely resembles a small table than a bench. It seats only one person, a child judging from its height.  Yes, I know: people were shorter in the past and, for all I know, they may have had meatier rumps; but the message embedded in all this elegant austerity is that godliness and comfort don’t mix.  Neither, apparently, does ornamentation, save one notable departure: The legs of one bench, whose origins I don’t recall, evoke the female form, a view that in another era might have been censored with pantalets, lest they inflame untoward desires.  Of this piece it’s safe to say: it probably didn’t come from one of the ascetic groups visited by Francis. 

I have no doubt that, while researching the design practices and spiritual beliefs of such sects, Francis was able to penetrate their thinking to a degree that revealed to him, the precise relationship between form, function and philosophy.  For those of us just looking and sitting, it’s too big a stretch.  That said, it’s easy to appreciate the designers’ – and Francis’ — abundant craft, as well as the sharp contrast between the rampant materialism of our own age and the economy of America’s earliest utopians. 

Francis Cape: “Utopian Benches” @ Walter and McBean Galleries, San Francisco Art Institute through March 14, 2014. 

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