If it looks like a chair but you can't sit on it, then is it a chair? Vincent Tomczyk's new solo exhibition "Overlooked" at Gallery 825 is a Zen koan of an exhibition.
Crafted meticulously from paper and mixed media, Tomczyk's chair sculptures tease our minds. A cozy armchair, a sleek, wooden Eames chair, a cushioned museum bench, an overturned bucket -- their familiar forms trigger sensory memories of comfort or a welcome break from work. However, the realization that these paper chairs can't support our weight is a challenge to our brains, forcing us to question what makes a chair a chair and how chairs figure in our lives and in art.
To Tomczyk, chairs are so common in our daily lives that they are often taken for granted, or overlooked. Yet they perform such an important function in most cultures, elevating people physically and socially as well as offering much needed support and repose. "Chairs provide a sense of dignity -- from hand carved stools in Africa, to thrones in Europe," Tomczyk points out. "Conversely, chairs are ubiquitously a part of our public and social lives, bringing humanity together in small groups or en masse."
It is this intersection of dignity and ubiquity that motivated the Los Angeles-based artist to create a series of highly realistic paper chair sculptures. He selects only chairs that resonated with him either emotionally or philosophically. "There has to be a story behind the chair before I can produce it," he explains. For example, the Eames Chair is an icon of design, but for Tomczyk, the chair represents the artistic creativity that blossomed from of the relationship between Charles Eames (1907-78) and his wife Ray (1912-88). "Years ago, I was fascinated by the idea of being 'equally yoked,' and when I learned about the Eames partnership, they seemed to epitomize this concept, and their work expresses this balance."
With all of his chairs, Tomczyk has pushed the boundaries of his paper, stitching, embossing and painting its surfaces to naturalistically reproduce not only the chairs' forms, colors and proportions, but also every detail of the patina and wear and tear that results from age and use. In stark contrast to the high design of the Eames chair is his untitled piece -- an overturned bucket that serves as a makeshift stool. Workers painting a house could sit on the ground to enjoy their lunch break, but they are more likely to turn over a crate or an empty bucket of paint and sit on that. With this piece, Tomczyk challenges us to consider why we prefer to be raised up off the ground in our social interactions and times of rest. Does sitting on a simple bucket make us feel more dignified, more socially powerful or just comfortable?
Lording over the exhibition is "Lucian Freud," a hefty leather armchair with a high back and sides, a throne of comfort and repose. The artist Lucian Freud (1922-2011) painted a number of his models seated on a similar chair, but most of us probably overlooked the chair itself when viewing his portraits. However, the British master of modern portraiture believed his own statement, 'everything is autobiographical and everything is a portrait, even if it's only a chair" so much that in 1997, he actually painted a portrait of the chair entitled "Armchair by the Fireplace." In his three-dimensional homage to Freud and his armchair, Tomczyk painstakingly calculated the exact proportions of the chair from the painting. Filling the form with foam core, he covered it with paper painted skillfully to mimic leather. He then recreated the chair's detailed surface texture by embossing it with over 3000 small florets, demonstrating the same meticulous attention to portraiture and revealing as much about his own character as did Freud.
In "Francis Bacon," an assemblage of several elements that forms a chair, Tomczyk pays homage to Freud's friend and fellow artist Francis Bacon (1909-1992). In the small, grimy-looking mattress and the worn leather cushion, we sense Bacon's gritty energy and fascination with raw texture. The dark backboard of the seat is marked with a white grid pattern, a reference to British photographer Eadweard Muybridge (1830 - 1904). Bacon claimed that Muybridge, who pioneered work in photographic studies of motion and in motion-picture projection, was his main source of visual information. Multiple layers of artistic debt are at work in this conceptual piece.
At the center of the gallery is the quintessential museum gallery bench, with chrome legs and black leather cushioning, crumpled from years of pressure from art lovers' behinds. To Tomczyk, the chair represents a sense of repose, meditation and slowing down. Such a chair traditionally invites a museum or gallery visitor to rest his or her weary legs and take a moment to contemplate the art work on the walls. This bench is indeed inviting and conceptually unifies Tomzyk's fascinating study of chairs in diverse cultural arenas. Each work is so technically astonishing and artistically rich and layered that I am sure I am not the only visitor to the exhibition who would have appreciated being able to sit down on something to contemplate them more fully.
Top Image: "Lucian Freud" by Vincent Tomczyk, 2013, paper & mixed media, 32 x 34 x 48 inches; Private Collection. | Courtesy of the artist.
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