I’m walking amongst a display of furniture— in a way. But these are not actual pieces of furniture. Their names often reference furniture: side table, biblelot cart, gray wardrobe, orange chair. But they do not appear to be useable pieces of furniture. They lean to the side, tower precariously, their uneven surfaces coming to drastic angles, not the usual orthogonal angles we are accustomed to from our household furnishings.
And then there is the colors. Bright, luminescent colors, shining through their matte surfaces, over the layers of fiberglass and resins. They are colors of a homewares rainbow, brilliant in the room, but as lacking of substance as the refraction of sunlight through an afternoon rainstorm.
The colors are the most noticeable feature of the work in Dawn Cerny’s exhibition of work in the Portland Art Museum’s APEX contemporary gallery. But after getting past the color, the viewer is confronted with an unsettling series of sculptures. Are they meant to be furniture? Are they meant to not be furniture?
The names create that uncertainty, as much as the sculptures themselves. They occasionally reference furniture, but they also reference people, places, and times. The names more set up a contrast to furniture. One title specifically references Ikea, and that seems like a most apt basis for contrast. These pieces are everything that Ikea is not. Ikea presents an image of “niceness,” the look of a home in which a majority of society might want to live. Ikea forms this image from a composite of furniture pieces, which you can buy individually, or in sets. But although many people own Ikea furniture, few homes with Ikea furniture end up looking like the image. One or several pieces of well-designed, clean looking, light toned furniture does not make an Ikea display catalog. Cerny’s work throws that lack of fulfillment into stark relief. Her sculptures do not have clean lines, subtle colors, or functional cleverness. However, they may be far more clever than Ikea’s patented flat-pack assembly. These pieces are unexpected, jarring, forcing the viewer to deal with them as individual pieces, not asking them to be submerged in a catalog aesthetic. Surprises wait for the observer of Cerny’s work— tricks of balance, small resting places in which coins, hair elastics, and other pocket litter have been stashed. Many of the works are on casters, presenting furnishings that are not meant to become part of the home, but instead, look as if they might begin to escape at any moment, if the floor becomes anything less than perfectly flat. Normally ignored aspects of homes are accentuated, such as in Cerny’s number of stylized duct vents, hanging up above the normal line of sight, and yet still joining in alliance with the larger works taking up the floor of the gallery. The path through the gallery is obstructed, forcing you to deal with the work, unlike furniture, normally pushed back against the walls.
In contrast to the simulacra of the Ikea catalog image, in which the furniture appears as if it is almost a part of that full, marketed image, Cerny’s work is more mutant, schizoid, escaping any attempt at complying with what society feels might be desireable. I’m reminded of a certain philosopher’s metaphor of a table, slowly changed, little by little— an extra leg, a hole in the flat surface, the object cut apart, rotated, and rejoined— until the point arrives at which we can say that this is no longer a table at all. Cerny’s pieces are departing the realm of furniture as well, but never having been there to begin with, we cannot really know where they are going. Less of a departure, and not an arrival either, these sculptures seem to be transiting tangentially, passing through the realm of the familiar, the comfortable, the material from which we construct our homes… and heading onward, into an even greater unknown than that from which they came.