WHEN IT comes to sitting, the human body is a grievously flawed piece of machinery. It is either too lightly or too heavily padded on the bottom, and two wretchedly bony extentions called elbows are expected to prop up a weighty upper torso and head.
To make things worse, the ever-unreliable spine, basically an unstable stack of poker chips, can never be made quite comfortable even with an array of pillows and pads constantly readjusted.
Presumably, furniture designers were put on earth to compensate for such anatomical faults. But art, as art often does, long ago got in the way of conventional practicality. The 20th century is filled with great-looking chairs that in reality are small torture chambers. Frank Lloyd Wright, if known for his furniture design alone, could easily be labeled a sadist. The late Scott Burton made public stone benches and chairs that might have been commissioned by corporate America to shorten lunch breaks (the bronze bench made by Burton in one of our NFTA stations and the concrete "Picnic Table" at Artpark are stellar examples of an exquis-ite linking of beauty andpain).
Wendell Castle, an artist who has been in the forefront of furniture for some 25 years, strikes a middle course between function and vision. Even in the '60s his work was often fanciful, stretching to discomfort the boundaries between furniture and sculpture.
A major figure in what came to be known as the Studio Craft movement, Castle has continued to produce extravagant and idiosyncratic designs. And while he has made his share of functionally uncooperative pieces, most of his designs show a regard for bodily comfort and utility -- even if his elaborate display of forms often sends out a contrary message.
Castle might have been given a retrospective a decade ago. Such is the quality and range of his work. But it came about only last year when the Detroit Institute of Art organized "Furniture by Wendell Castle." The exhibition has now arrived at the Memorial Art Gallery in Rochester, the institution that, spurred by Director Grant Holcomb, initiated the overdue project. The showing here is especially important because Rochester has been Castle's longtime home (he now lives in nearby Scottsville). He is also artist-in-residence at the Rochester Institute of Technology's famed School for American Craftsmen.
The retrospective, composed of 45 pieces, covers 30 years of Castle's work. It continues on view in the gallery, 500 University Ave., through Jan. 20. (Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesdays through Fridays; 12:30 p.m. to 9 Tuesdays; and 12:30 to 5 p.m. Sundays.)
The exhibition bristles with inventiveness and audacity. His early laminated wood pieces belong to a flamboyant species of furniture design, filled with derring-do and calculated assaults on utility. Nature-derived form, so popular in sculpture of the time, reigns.
One desk from the period looks like a spider poised for the attack. A blanket chest, when closed, resembles an odd hybrid between an overgrown fruit and a pod-person. A double library seat looks as if it is about to unfurl and grow unchecked, like Jack's beanstalk.
Many of these remarkable pieces teeter at the edge of utility; they work, but in the strange context made by an array of bony projections, aggressive fins and wandering rootlike legs.
From the '60s pieces alone, it's apparent that Castle longed to be a sculptor. In fact, he began as one at the University of Kansas, where he earned a master of fine arts degree in sculpture. And even today he seems to live by the tension he creates between furniture as useful object and furniture as pseudo-sculpture. Luckily, Castle is a savvy and masterful fence-straddler. The anxiety to make "pure" sculpture seldom causes him to subvert the basic fact of his artistic life: He makes furniture.
No matter how extreme Castle's metaphors might be -- and they can be very extreme -- his work is never just about furniture; it is furniture. Richard Artschwager made minimalist boxes with images of tables on their sides. Lucas Samaras made spiked chairs filled with foreboding. Burton made his austere benches. But Castle never indulges in such distant references to mental and psychological states.
His "Temple Desk and Chair" (1984), for example, is eminently useful. With its cluster of cartoony legs it may not look so, but it is. Or, in another example, the cone and ball support of "Never Complain, Never Explain" (1985) is a "sculptural" device that, in this case, makes you want to sit down and use the table -- eat, drink, write at it.
Castle may be at his best when he wryly comments on pleasure and bodily comfort. Such striking visual effects as the doughnut and cone legs of "Atlantis Desk" (1982) or the "still life of oranges and loaves" (as I call it) on top of "Humidor" (1987), for all their extravagance, conjure up images of the home. These works and others like them suggest humans happily engaged in domestic acts -- touching and arranging objects, sitting, smoking, losing themselves to easy reverie.
Or, to say the same thing in reverse form: Castle is not an artist capable of anxiety (that is not to say he doesn't feel it, like anybody else living in 1990). His skepticism is short-range, easily scattered by humor and a happy acceptance of modern life's oddities. He may at times go beyond function, but never quite beyond ordinary reason.
For example, one can't picture Castle making discomforting sculpture-furniture like that produced by Vito Aconci. In Aconci's barren benches, strange sitting nooks and upside-down chairs, a feeling of hopelessness prevails. The body, paralyzed by fear of its own mortality, has no time for friendly domestic tasks; it's too busy dying.
Any time Castle's work veers toward such dangerous psychology, he (wisely) retreats. His nominally aggressive "Bench" (1988), a baroque zigzag form with fairy-tale wiggles for armrests, only feigns danger. Threat in Castle is all theater. In the end, all will be turned to amusement and pleasure.
Castle is least interesting when he tries to challenge sculpture, armed with nothing but eccentric form and ballooning metaphoric imagination. His clocks can seem overblown and arbitrary. See, for example, "Maquette for Full Moon" of 1987-88, which I find a god-awful design unredeemed by the fact that it is a clock on a grand scale.
Again, the closer he comes to a furniture model, the better the piece. "Pyramid Coffee Table" (1984), a pyramid that opens to reveal an obelisk, is a brilliant commentary on the history of form. Still, it is very much a table. It not only works; in the process Castle invents a new form of the folding table.
Castle finds his genius in setting up a chain of associations with objects of domesticity. His trompe l'oeil work is not some surrealist sojourn, as some commentators have written, but an affirmation of the quiet reality of the house. His "Coatrack With Trench Coat" assumes this narrow and secure world. It's not the coat of some specter out of Magritte, but of a solid being, home after a day's work and probably by now resting in a big easy chair.
Castle's remakes -- a term not meant to diminish their brilliance -- of historical styles is not to be passed by casually. "Demilune Table" (1981), "Octagonal-Based Table" (1981) and the stunningly refined "Lady's Desk With Two Chairs" (1981), to name only three, gracefully bring history into modern life without derailing in the least the aesthetic originality of the older styles. Here Castle expands the domestic realm by subtly reshaping the forms of another time. He makes the leap from centuries past (when, not incidentally, hand-made furniture had entirely different connotations as art work and as object of social status) to the present with near-miraculous ease.
Castle has an uncanny ability to place himself imaginatively in diverse historical situations. Somehow he is able to take the old and speak of it as though it were new and unusual. He does this with classical forms, postmodern forms (if you'll allow me to call postmodernism old), and neo-modern styles from art deco to expressionism.
For Castle, however, history is never just a grab bag of style. He's no postmodernist out to trash the past. He never mocks the old to establish a modern superiority. And he never treats the past with an insider's sense of irony, let alone with sarcasm.
One may get the feeling that the past for Castle is one vast landscape of humanist values. Given the unsteady conditions of modern life, it takes a considerable degree of old-fashioned faith to believe an object so humble as a chair or a table can express such lofty values. Castle believes it possible, and proves it in the work.