The still burgeoning career of artist Chelsea Gustafsson reveals both a painter of technical skill and a person in possession of a sharp sense of humour. Exploring concerns both social and personal; be it ocean pollution, consumerist clutter or the virtue of Australia’s native plant-life, Gustafsson utilises a visual language mixed with imagination and incongruity to speak affably of those issues facing contemporary society. In her latest exhibition, Comfort Kills, the seemingly benign and innocent domestic experience is used as a means to translate a complicit and critical worldview. Deploying a heterogeneous collection of chairs, found discarded on roadsides or still in service within homes, Gustafsson creates a series of traditional still-lives verging on portraiture to subvert the seemingly innocent act of ‘sitting’. Depicting these everyday physical supports and the sedentary act they represent as a form of social foolishness, the message behind this exhibition is at once both lighthearted and urgent; our lounging about might well bring about our downfall.
The chair is a powerful iconic image, inextricably linked to the human experience. Its form speaks of functionality and civility, of status, power and subservience, as well as suggesting moments of rest and reflection, and as such has made regular appearances throughout art history. There’s Rodin’s Thinker (1880), sitting eternally pensive and soulful atop a nondescript but functional lump of rock. Vincent Van Gogh painted them with lit candles and pipes perched disconcertingly in their seats, suggesting both vulnerability and personal self-worth. Joseph Kosuth’s 1968 installation One and Three Chairs used the concept of the chair to question the codes by which we define experience, and in the late 1980’s YBA Sarah Lucas began utilising them as stand-ins for the sexual human body – all arms and legs and horizontal passive functionality.
For Gustafsson, the chair possesses a warm familiarity, a playfulness and vibrancy that makes them a powerful motif, implicit in the domestic experience. Be it Dad’s favourite armchair, the kitchen stool guests gravitate toward or the plastic chair offered at a friendly backyard BBQ, they each recall social interactions, economic circumstances, daily rhythms, and self expression. But they also call to mind frivolous time wasting. With titles like You Snooze, You Lose and Jason Reclining, it becomes clear that Gustafsson is not viewing the act of sitting as one of intense contemplation or social betterment. Held within each of her exquisitely detailed, gem-like panels, the artist’s choice to upend her subjects, to jumble them with domestic flotsam, serves to depict the perils of procrastination, of laziness, of idle modernity. These chairs and the lives led while relaxing in them become total folly.
Rather than thoughtfully improving the human condition, Gustafsson’s chairs represent contemporary society’s sedentary, self-absorbed, screen-obsessed disposition; an epidemic that poses an overwhelming threat to both the natural environment and our own physical and mental health. It is within the exacting familiarity of these chairs that the sting of Gustafsson’s message lies. The artist has, in effect, drawn together a cross section of society, (from the cut-price outdoor chair to the exclusive designer Eames), in all its various states of sedentary repose. While each chair is endearing, fallible and happily domesticated, each is equally complicit in endorsing a state of apathy toward both an active engagement in daily life and the looming effects of climate imbalance. None of these chairs represent those of political power – there are no regal thrones, judicial benches or parliamentary seats depicted here – and yet collectively, perhaps, they will determine the future to come.
Catalogue essay by Phe Luxford, 2019