Cassie Packard on Jessi Reaves

Enlarging upon the commodity fetish in Das Kapital (1867), Karl Marx characterized a simple wooden table as an animate monstrosity. “So soon as it steps forth as a commodity, it is changed into something transcendent,” he wrote. “It not only stands with its feet on the ground . . . it stands on its head, and evolves out of its wooden brain grotesque ideas, far more wonderful than ‘table-turning’ ever was.” For Marx, who likely had the then-recent innovation of mass-producible bentwood furniture on his mind, the “table-turning”—a form of séance popularized during the nineteenth century—that summoned garrulous spirits seemed a rather unexceptional thing compared to the marvelously strange and transmogrifying “turn” of commodification.

The insistent animacy of Jessi Reaves’s work in “At the well,” her exhibition at Bridget Donahue, gestures to the presence of inspiriting forces within her furniture-based bricolages: One sees labor relations and poltergeists, yes, but also affective projections, cultural baggage, and the social and material lives of the objects themselves. Reaves approaches furniture as raw material and subject matter, scrutinizing it as both referent and sign. The artist and former freelance reupholsterer appropriates, strips, and guts sundry appointments purchased from antique shops, salvaged from curbs, or gifted by friends. She then sculpturally reconstitutes the deconstructed fixtures using polyurethane foam, batting, pieces of plywood, car parts, metal tubing, fabric (flounced, draped, wrapped), wooden crockery, mesh lampshades, and more to produce chaotic hybrids that trouble the binary of art and design, which has been further irritated here by the inclusion of six flamboyantly refurbished “exhibition seating” booths from which one can observe the work.

In stark contrast to the sleek modernist furniture that her sculptures frequently absorb, Reaves’s phagocytic creations flaunt the labor that produced them, piling on signs of toil as if they were diverting baubles. Bad Apartment Shelf (all works 2022), whose title alludes to the Kleinian notion of a “bad object,” is a vertical wall-mounted rack crawling with biomorphic wicker outgrowths and wooden protuberances and accented by a Lilliputian cabinet clumsily inlaid with flowers. Masquerading as masking tape, strips of blue craft feathers encrusted with glue synthesize labor and ornament. Knobby brown excrescences of agglutinated sawdust and adhesive—a mixture typically used by woodworkers as discreet filler—act as joinery, repudiating subtlety as they yoke together disparate components with crude exuberance.

Essentially bereft of serviceable shelving, the DIY-style sculpture fails at functionality. As Reaves repeatedly voids, inverts, or displaces a piece of furniture’s use value, familiar domestic trappings transform into unruly strangers. Take An Unnatural Act (Slipper Chair), a patched-up version of the titular object, originally designed to help put one’s shoes on. It is lashed to the elaborate whorls of the base of a rocking chair by Michael Thonet (the originator of bentwood furniture) and a finely wrought headboard devised to support sleep. Characterized by helter-skelter layers that telegraph discord rather than comfort, this piece is riddled with stalemate-inducing contradictions: One can imagine the difficulty posed by the task of putting on shoes in a swaying chair or finding restorative slumber in a pint-sized seat. Waste Basket with Exaggerated Flounce, featuring a frothy semi-sheer fabric draped over a square trash bin, renders the receptacle unusable. It instead operates as a tableau in which the decorative tops the functional, laying gendered design hierarchies to waste. Cheap feminine ornament trounces utility once again in Cubbard with Barrel Doors, where obstructive wooden bows sprout from a barrel-chested cabinet like toadstools from a rotten log, impeding any use of the item’s stripped shelving. An upturned wooden bowl affixed with another bow caps the cupboard like a crown.

In A sample of the truth, a handsome Hans Wegner–style folding chair—meticulously and restrainedly constructed for elegance, comfort, and easy storage—is merged with curved metal appendages bearing bloated sawdust-and-glue agglomerations embedded with crumpled metal reflector domes, curling wires, and wooden beads and bowls. A landscape painted across the bowls spills across these heavy concretions, suggesting that this lowly gallimaufry has “high art” aspirations—or is perhaps executing a rather shoddy con job. “Things should do the job they are designed for,” said Wegner in 1979. “I don’t think that’s asking too much.” But Reaves’s ungovernable furniture has other ideas—to quote the posthumanist thinker Karen Barad, it “feels, converses, suffers, desires, yearns, and remembers.”

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