Defining art: What if you can sit in it?

Times Staff Writer

While the intersection of art and design is one of the most interesting topics in both of those worlds these days, it’s hardly a new one. Artists -- those who define themselves first as makers of objects without specific use -- have been making functional objects for eons. The question “Is it art, or design?” probably did not occur, for example, to early 20th century Modernist sculptor Constantin Brancusi when he carved wooden pedestals for his lithe sculptures.

Since the early 1980s, the lines have become much less clear. Sculptor Scott Burton set the bar by creating series of sculptural chairs meant to be used. When he carved a seat into a slab of stone, however, it was a decidedly self-conscious action, a commentary on the meaning of “chair-ness” as well as on how art functions in the world. Burton was probably most successful with his sculptures in the public arena, such as a small installation of seats in the sculpture garden of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, which can either prompt interaction by users or discourage it depending on the arrangement.

For Siah Armajani, among the most poetic of contemporary artists, the building of a bridge in 1989 in the sculpture garden at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis or a poetry garden in 1992 at the former Lannan Foundation in L.A. resulted in art that was both usable and a catalyst for dialogue about the experience of functional art objects. Among the artists continuing this tradition today are Jorge Pardo, who built a residence in Mount Washington and calls it a work of art, and Jim Isermann, also of L.A., who is well-known for his consciously decorative objects and installations. For all of these artists, the siting of the work and/or the intellectual overlay of the artist’s concept is essential to understanding it.

Roy McMakin, who trained as an artist and makes furniture as well as works of art, is quite different. His furniture reexamines traditional forms through exaggeration, color and humor, but in most cases does not presume to step outside its functionalism. The siting of the pieces can be important, but usually for design reasons, and not philosophical ones.


When McMakin makes art objects, therefore, it is a separate endeavor, in which his commentary is much more layered and provocative. In that sense, he is kin to artists like Donald Judd, the Minimalist sculptor who also made furniture and never confused the two. However, in those instances when McMakin’s art becomes more functional and his furniture more filled with commentary, can the two truly be separated? As Marcel Duchamp once asked, is a urinal placed on a pedestal a work of art? There is no simple answer.