Let’s start with a definition: Studio furniture is furniture that is also art. Good studio furniture is lovingly crafted, originally designed, and often has an animating wit. Maybe that’s why furniture maker David Savage called his 2011 book surveying the field in the United States and United Kingdom “Furniture With Soul: Master Woodworkers and Their Craft.” Savage takes a two-pronged approach, identifying both masters of the genre and up-and-comers.
Gallery NAGA has snatched the opportunity to mount two shows featuring Savage’s picks. The first one, also titled “Furniture With Soul,” is up now and spotlights abiding figures in the field, such as Englishman John Makepeace, who came up in the 1970s, Californian John Cederquist, and Cambridge-based Judy Kensley McKie. Next spring, the gallery will bring the younger artists in.
The marquetry is a marvel in Makepeace's startling and comic “Zebra Cabinets.” Snugly fitting together black oak and pale holly like puzzle pieces, Makepeace depicts stripes, as well as faces and tails on either end of the horizontal cabinets. Open the door, and you find the cubbies and drawers inside lacquered in a shocking fire-engine red.
Cederquist modeled his sprightly upright cabinet “Big Kanji” after a 1940s-era kimono covered with wartime propaganda. He, too, uses marquetry, insetting images cut from a variety of woods into the wooden surface. Giant Japanese lettering in red is amplified by the swoop of wood grain. On the right, a squadron of planes, propellers whirling, fly into an ominous cloud-filled sky. McKie's bronze “Grazing Horse Table,” meanwhile, is all grace, with its undulant, muscular lines and its whispering patina.
Peter Danko’s “NoCo2 Chair” is among the more modest works in the show. It’s modeled on a familiar Eames chair design with four legs and a slightly scoopy back and seat, crafted from glossy ash and Macassar ebony. Danko inserted rubber from car tires beneath the seat; it gives the chair spring. Even as these artists make work that has aesthetic juice, they are conscious of the smallest technical details. Appealing as this furniture is to look at, it begs to be touched, and used.
Mystery amid disasters
Morgan Bulkeley has a new show of frenetic, cartoonish, apocalyptic paintings at Howard Yezerski Gallery. Bulkeley populates chaotic landscapes with lumpy naked figures, keen-eyed birds, and other animals.
In many works, he activates the entire field with a frenzy of characters and paint flecks. There’s satiric social commentary in paintings such as “Chasing Big Bucks,” in which many such characters wrestle and fight over fives and twenties. These invite laughter and a knowing nod, but several other canvases featuring a more focused composition with a central image inevitably go deeper.
“Unfinished Hogan,’’ for instance, depicts a couple embracing under a dome made from branches that stick through sketches. One shows a man cutting through a branch with a chainsaw; another has a clown jabbing a Native American in the eye with his thumb. The wry, alarming commentary is still there, but here Bulkeley also grapples with himself, as he builds a shelter from products of his imagination.
In these works, the artist does not merely create a Three Stooges-like scenario that rails against how the human race has undermined the environment. Bulkeley more palpably evokes humanity’s vulnerability, and the thin scrims of protection we wrap ourselves in.
“Blimp/Hogan/Airplane/Tepee Crash” has an aptly descriptive title — it’s a middle-of-the-night disaster. Inside the hogan (again, apparently constructed of sketches), a woman sleeps and a man, painted in black-and-white stripes, sits beside her. Is he watching over her, or is he a predator? Is she a stand-in for Gaia, or is she us? There’s mystery here that is less evident in works such as “Chasing Big Bucks,” and the satisfying sense that Bulkeley is more and more serving his imagination, rather than harnessing it to his own ends.
Rituals, including art
In “Ritual,” a group show at Galería Cubana, three Cuban artists dip into the richness of ritual in their culture, drawing on the Santería religion, and also on meditative and repetitive processes that go into making art. In many of these works, pattern is the basis from which figure and narrative often miraculously spring, as if enough dots and stripes can accrue into meaning.
Isolina Limonta, in her jewel-toned hand-embellished collograph “Los miradas del universo (The Eyes of the Universe)” finds that pattern in nature. Here, the stalk of a plant runs up a figure’s spine, and green leaves radiate outward. The face seems made of whirling spirals, and there’s a mask with six eyes and cyclonic reach to either side. The eyes, according to gallery director Michelle Wojcik, refer to a Santería custom of painting eyes on doorways to ward off enemies.
The pen-and-ink drawings of Luis Eliades Rodríguez are intricate patterns that build into scenes, as in “Ochun ‘Mirando su flor (Looking at the Flower),’ ’’ an image of the Santería love goddess. Jose Manuel Mederos Sigler, who goes by Mederox, has a nervy, vaguely Cubist edge to his mixed-media works. His “Hombre con Espiritu Exterior (Man With Exterior Spirit),” depicts the profile of a man in ink against a red ground, bold and unreal, but magnetic.
FURNITURE WITH SOUL
At: Gallery NAGA,
67 Newbury St., through July 13. 617-267-9060, www.gallerynaga.com
At: Howard Yezerski Gallery, 460 Harrison Ave., through July 10. 617-262-0550, www.howardyezerskigallery.com
At: Galería Cubana,
460 Harrison Ave., through July 29. 617-292-2822, www.lagaleriacubana.com