Francis Cape, Utopian Benches, 2011, poplar, dimensions variable, installation view, Arcadia University Art Gallery. Photograph by Greenhouse Media.
Utopian Benches, a project by British sculptor and master woodworker Francis Cape, now on view at the Murray Guy Gallery in New York City through Aug. 9, has been gaining critical acclaim this summer. The exhibition, which was fostered by and first displayed at Arcadia University Art Gallery in 2011, explores the juncture between craft and belief using reconstructions of benches from various 19th-century utopian communities, such as the Shakers, the Oneida Perfectionists, and the nearby Ephrata Cloister.
“Francis Cape’s latest work is an extraordinary gathering of faith-based furniture—further proof that God actually may be in the details,” writes senior New York Times art critic Roberta Smith, who praised the exhibition’s exploration of the “physical and spiritual aspects of craft and design.”
The exhibition was not only designated as a New York Times’ Critics’ Pick but was also called “one of New York’s most surprising and rewarding summer gallery exhibitions” by New York Observer critic Andrew Russeth.
The Murray Guy Gallery installation consists of 17 benches made of poplar harvested near Cape’s studio in upstate New York and are modeled directly on existing benches found among secular and religious societies in North America.
“One of the beautiful things about these benches is how transparently they were built,” said Richard Torchia, director of Arcadia University Art Gallery. “The inherent honesty of Cape’s construction process extends to the way they are presented. Whether you consider them as furniture to facilitate group discussions or prefer to regard them as sculpture, they serve both purposes equally well.”
For Torchia, the benches evoke a sense of community and encourage interactivity both among people and between people and the benches themselves. For instance, at Arcadia, the installation served as a place for classes as well as a site for public discussions on a range of topics, including “utopia” and the value of “craft.”
“Something surprising occurs when people actually sit down on them. You begin to connect in a physical way to the original uses and users of the benches,” Torchia explains.
Cape’s book, We Sit Together: Utopian Benches From the Shakers to the Separatists of Zoar, explores Cape’s experiences traveling and researching the benches and their communal contexts. It also includes functional measured drawings of each bench, which Torchia, who wrote the foreword for the book, believes “helps to advance the utopian mission or vision that Francis has for them. Armed with these drawings, now anyone can make accurate reconstructions of these historic benches and extend the traditions they represent.”
While the exhibit originated at Arcadia, it has since been displayed at ICA/Maine College of Art in Portland, Me., and the Tang Teaching Museum at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. Four other benches are also on view at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York City until Sept. 15.