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The Couch Trip

No naked people on restaurant walls

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Like many painters, I have flinched when some interior decorator has dissuaded a client from buying a painting on the grounds that "it wouldn't look good over the sofa." This subversion of aesthetic priorities has become a bitter cliche in the art world for a middlebrow absence of taste.The concept, therefore, for Sofa Show (currently on view at Hodges Taylor Gallery) is clever, with some cute results. Selected architects and designers have fun with the idea of matching up art and sofas. . .but I wished for more. The show would be more dynamic if designers and architects participating in Hodges Taylor's call to solve the "Sofa" dilemma of "What will look good over my sofa?" had approached the collaboration (in the way I'd assumed the art gallery had prescribed) by selecting a painting first, a sofa second. As far as I could tell, none of them did it this way. Instead, most of the designers selected or designed a seating tableau, and then proceeded to find the "right" painting (or photographs) for it, thus sadly reaffirming art as secondary.

Having Hodges Taylor's inventory of art at their fingertips to select "something to go over the sofa" must have been nice for the actors in this play, but other than that, how is this different?

In only one case was the kind of traditional upholstered sofa most people have in their living rooms used. In that case, architect Wayne Camas makes the most understated, minimalist statement among the Sofa Show installations. The furniture is fitted with a pleasant sheen of fabric that goes well with most paintings -- in this case, "Pieces of Dirt" by Raymond Chorneau (apparently not the designer's first choice...).

Some of the collaborations on display in Sofa Show are more inspiring, such as "Il Divano and un Miraggio," a mini-installation composed of a pile of pale, fine sand, mounded on the gallery floor into a beach setting with two black chairs to form the "sofa" tableau by designer Pete Mangum. The rather surreal addition of two square patches of grass complement the sparkling sand, and relate to artist Robert Stuart's large abstract painting "Scantlings: Pearlescent and Graphite," with several rectangular shapes rendered in chalky white against gray.

I felt a little cheated, however, by the Gensler firm's three tacky auto seats placed desultorily in front of Carl Bergman's enigmatic black-and-white photographs. I thought Bergman's work deserved something a lot more thoughtful.

Another photographer fares better. Byron Baldwin's four black-and-whites team up well with the roughhewn, weathered bench presented by John S. Gardner (The Environments Group) which "matches" the natural imagery of beach scenes and water in the photos, and is perhaps the most honest interpretation of the "sofa" dilemma in the show.

"High Wire," an interesting narrative painting by Mary Edith Alexander, works well as backdrop to a row of old wooden school auditorium seats selected by Tom Quenten Keeling (Clark Nexsen Architecture & Engineering). Alexander's painted figures, which include a semi- portrait of local performance artist Abigail Jennings wearing a brown coat and tall boots, establish their places in space with long, looming shadows tailing off diagonally. In the background, a small figure in green wearing a wizard's cap is standing at a podium; two boys on a bike are wheeling by; a trailing rope vanishes off the picture plane. Above, the figure of a trapeze artist balances on a wire. The scene feels like an eerie schoolyard setting, which is fitting when coupled with the vintage seating.

Several designers include more props in their "sofa" settings. In the case of Allen Smith and Tony Ward, the designers place a bent-wood frame around Valentina Dubaskey's strongly colored horse painting of red, yellow-orange, black and white. The frame matches the settee (handhewn by Nona and Herman Noblitt). I'd like to think that Ms. Dubaskey's painting came first in the inspiration for this little (sofa-less) setting.

Robert A. Marsh's oil-stick-on-paper cow picture is paired with designer Robert D. Carpenter's antique metal bench and Afghan rug. Once again, the seat is pleasant but it's no sofa.

There's even a miniature piece of model furniture in the show, displayed upon a black pedestal. In "It's All About Scale," the tableau conceived by Missy Luczak, a Cezanne-esque painting titled "Trees with Gray Car" by Eric Olsen looms large behind this dainty white doll-sized seat.

At this point in the story, you're no doubt wondering what this article's subhead, "No naked people on restaurant walls," might have to do with the work of this show. A few days before visiting Sofa Show, I learned of another instance of an interior decorator vetoing paintings. I visited a colleague who was in the process of framing some giant figure drawings on paper by the superior draftsman, Ben Long. These preparatory drawings for frescoes, known as "cartoons," are destined to hang on the walls of a future Charlotte restaurant, and their human imagery includes nary a nude. There's a reason for this. The decorator for the project made it clear that the nudes first suggested for the dining emporium just wouldn't be appropriate. Might even be offensive!

There's surely nothing "offensive" or even "naked" about the work in Sofa Show, on view uptown through August 31, 2002. In fact, it's kind of fun for all. But next time, I hope the gallery begins the process with the art. Perhaps a Ben Long nude.

Hodges Taylor Gallery is located at 401 N. Tryon Street. Phone 704-334-3799 or check out the website at www.hodgestaylor.com for more information.

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