Fine arts (painting, sculpture, etc.) and decorative arts (furniture, silverware, etc.) are two branches of the arts with overlapping but not identical functions. Fine arts perform a decorative function and relate to people in a non-physical, humanistic way; that is, they tell us something about ourselves at some level (or they should). Decorative arts perform a decorative function and relate to people in a physical, utilitarian way; that is, we use them in our everyday lives.
It's not often that fine arts are utilitarian, unless you consider that filling up wall space satisfies the requirement. And it's not often that decorative arts are humanistic, unless you consider that preferring an upholstered chair to a straight chair tells you something about yourself -- as well it may. Still, that's not part of the job of decorative arts.
Unless you make it part of the job, by declaring that your decorative arts are really fine arts. By its very title, "Furniture Nearly Equal to Sculpture" -- the current exhibit at Maryland Art Place -- tells you that you should regard these works as both fine and decorative arts.
In reality, many of these objects -- if you'll excuse the furniture reference here -- fall between two stools by fulfilling a decorative function better than they exist on either a humanistic or a utilitarian level.
For the most part, they're extremely well-made, original, beautiful objects. But they don't, on the whole, have the soul of a work of fine arts, and some of them don't do their jobs as furniture very well, either.
For instance, I sat in all the seating furniture that wasn't on pedestals. (No, you're not supposed to, but I was given permission.) Eight examples of seating furniture in all. And not one of them was as comfortable of its kind as a well-made piece of furniture from a good furniture store.
Again, take the lamps. Three of them were turned on when I was there. They were visually interesting objects, but they didn't appear to work very well as lamps. Two of them weren't giving off a whole lot of light, and the third threw its unshaded light right in your face.
Or take the pieces that appear to act as desks or writing tables. Of the three, all were great to look at, but two had little or no storage space.
Other pieces function nicely. Many of the tables obviously work just fine, including Jamie Jensen's "Triquadra," Jack Larimore's "Frilly Crusto Table," Tom Seiler's "Concrete Table," F. L. Wall's "Rover," and Robin Youngelman's "Larry, Moe, and Curly Maple" and "Wenge You're Smiling."
Patti Tronolone's "Muffler Buffet," David Klein's enormous cabinet called "Equus" and Stephen Perrin's chest of drawers called "Tall" can't be faulted on the utilitarian level, either. And they all look great, as does almost everything in this handsome show. This is furniture that'll stand a lot of looking.
But if an object presents itself as both furniture and sculpture, surely it is legitimate to consider how it works as well as how it looks. And some of these objects obviously look better than they work.
'Furniture Nearly Equal to Sculpture'
Where: Maryland Art Place, 218 W. Saratoga St.
When: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, through Dec. 7
Call: (410) 962-8565
Pub Date: 10/23/96