Turning the Tables . . . & Chairs

An artful take on furniture at Winston-Salem’s Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art

By Nancy Oakley     Photographs by John Koob Gessner

Come sit a spell! But before you plop down onto the seat of that aluminum chair with geometric patterns seemingly etched into it, you might want to think again, and ease yourself onto it. For those “etchings,” are actually interlocking pieces supported by springy foam. “It conforms to your butt,” says Wendy Earle, curator at the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art (SECCA) in Winston-Salem. The chair, aka The Blue Scotty, was fashioned by Penland’s Annie Evelyn, one of 15 artists from North Carolina, Virginia and Tennessee whose 50 pieces of furniture comprise SECCA’s whimsical exhibit — Furnished — on view through January 5, 2020.

Arriving from West Texas a year and a half ago, Earle says she was struck by the prevalence of the Triad’s furniture industry. “There are a lot of makers and sales,” she observes. “All the places I’d lived, that hadn’t been the case. It wasn’t an industry like it is here.” So she got to thinking: “What does that mean for us in the contemporary world to kind of have all this furniture swirling around us?” She was also interested in mounting an exhibit with an accessible frame of reference for viewers. “We see it every day. Everyone’s got furniture in their house,” Earle says.

Partnering with the Furniture Society, a Brooklyn-based nonprofit dedicated to promoting the art of, you guessed it, furniture making, Earle was convinced to approach the show with an open call for entries. “‘That way,’” she recalls her cohorts at the Society telling her, “‘you’re going to get some surprises, because you’re not going to know everybody.’” And surprised she was, as 35 applicants came to the fore. Two of them among the 15 selected for the show are Africans — Jomo Tariku an Ethiopian, who resides in Virginia, and Graham Campbell, a white South African based in Tennessee. “The other thing that surprised me is, we’ve got a lot of animal themes,” Earl says, pointing to wall sculptures of animals, a fish appearing to charge right through the middle of a Federalist-style table (inspired by a piece in Old Salem, as it happens), and another table embellished with a tail made of horsehair. “There’s also a bit of a nautical theme,” Earle says.

She anticipated “creative re-use” of materials, but was, again surprised at the ways in which they were used — metal and ceramics masquerading as wood, lines drawn onto wood to simulate its grain. But don’t think for a minute you need to hold your breath and reverently tiptoe around these works. With the exception of the ceramic pieces, you’re encouraged to sit on them, touch them and explore. (At the exhibit’s opening in July, the artists fairly insisted on it.) Ultimately, you’ll discover, as Earle has, that Furnished “transcends furniture,” revealing “furniture as sculpture and sculpture as furniture; so really, taking it beyond this utilitarian object and looking at it as a form of art,” she says. Below are some of the exhibit’s standouts that will give pause the next time you set a table, flip a light switch or sink into your sofa, remote in hand.



Four Legs Good!

Especially four legs of chairs reconstituted to form these whimsical animal wall sculptures. In his Charismatic series, Mexico native and Asheville resident José Pablo (JP) Barreda recalls his childhood love of comic books and nature documentaries by transforming different styles of chairs into a menagerie. The teeth of his American Alligator were once the rungs on the back of a rocking chair; a Windsor chair enjoys new life of a fighting bull; a Louis side chair becomes a Galápagos tortoise; while a basic wooden office chair with a slatted back has morphed into a Sumatran orangutan.






Brent Skidmore’s towering sculpture, Peril AND Promise of Building a New Livingroom asks viewers to consider just what furniture is. Though some of its components are metal (pieces of chair backs and legs), most are made of wood. “He’s investigating the wood and what he can make it look like,” says Earle. “He’s playing in a real way.”  Some sections of the tower appear to be made of stone, others are imprinted with patterns, another studded with jewels. Adding to the playful vibe are two other sections puckishly crowned with tiny models of an armchair and an Eames chair.







All Hands on Deck

If the curved ribs of Rassawek Side Table (steam-bent ash placed over a cherry frame) remind you of a yacht’s hull, or the sleek cypress planks forming the backing of Draketail Chair resemble the deck of a yacht, that’s exactly as David Bohnhoff intended. A native of Virginia Beach, Virginia, the artist was fascinated with boats from an early age, so much so that he studied at Maine’s Landing School of boat making and design. Since returning to his home state, where he earned a B.F.A. in furniture making from Virginia Commonwealth Univerisity in Richmond, Bohnhoff has been creating simple, elegant pieces by hand, without the aid of computers, automated tools or 3-D printers — a true testament of an artist in command of his, er, craft.








Visions of Light

Illuminating a darkened corner of SECCA’s sprawling galley seven colorful “chandeliers” form a series titled Where Do You Stay?  by Charlotte native Austin 

Ballard. Through cutouts of patterned shades suspended from basic lamp chains that the artist bought in bulk, the light fixtures cast a soft glow. On close inspection, you’ll realize the shades are made of familiar materials: “Craft store supplies,” explains Curator Wendy Earle. “That sort of grid work you’d use when you’re learning needlepoint.” Most are plastic but there are other materials, such as wood and rattan in the hanging wonders. “He’s putting an extraordinary amount of time into it. And using a basic material,” Earle says. “You wouldn’t expect a male artist to be playing with these other two pieces, Conversation Chair and Fainting Chair, made from cane webbing whose tiny holes Ballard filled with epoxy entirely by hand.




Sitting Pretty

Perching on the dramatic Cathedral Train Chair, the handiwork of Penland artist Annie Evelyn, you can indulge in your Game of Thrones fantasies, and more important, become one with the piece of art. “She just wanted to create a dress that you could sit in, a chair that you could wear,” says Earle of the walnut base with a flowing train of teal Dupioni silk. “It makes you feel very regal.” Complementing the chair’s grandeur is William Lenard’s Cathedral Windows, three gothic-style panels of ebonized white oak and denim.









Yes, this gnarled old chair (aka Majesty) with its swirling grain and companions Tea Table and Teapot appear to have been fashioned out of tree trunks for the likes of Merlin or Gandalf the Wizard. But run your hand along their surfaces — and ever so carefully, please! — to find the works are in fact, made of ceramic. “He’s really into the detail,” observes Wendy Earle of Chapel Hill about artist Eric Serritella’s trompe l’oeil pieces (the heaviest in the Furnished exhibit) that explore themes of nature and sustainability.









Want to Go?

A division of the North Carolina Department of Cultural and Natural Resources, the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art (SECCA) continues to expand its reach. New plans are afoot under the leadership of Executive Director, William Carpenter, who took the helm in June. The Center’s main entrance — for years the heavy wooden door to the English country-style house that once belonged to James G. Hanes, will move closer to the contemporary wing housing exhibit space and the McChesney Scott Dunn Auditorium. Also in Carpenter’s plans? Expanding event space on the grounds with an amphitheater and in a smaller gallery space inside. More significant, SECCA will convert the house’s original dining room to a gallery. “We’re going to call it the Southern Idioms Gallery,” Carpenter explains.” Everything will be for sale. It’s an opportunity to celebrate local artists.”  Info: secca.org  h

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