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Sitting Pretty

With his deliberately dysfunctional yet arresting tables and chairs, Duane Paluska explores the essence of furniture.

Duane Paluska's peculiarly engaging new sculptures look as though they were well on their way to becoming furniture until they got a better idea and became art instead. In some cases, strategic elements -- seats, tops, legs -- are simply missing. In others, two and three pieces of furniture seem to have been joined at the hip to create a new mongrel form.

Paluska's art furniture is not just unfinished or nonfunctional, it is deliberately dysfunctional. Humorous in a disturbing way, it leaves the viewer with the impression that there is definitely something wrong here.

Paluska, 67, is a tall, slender man of saturnine disposition. He is both one of Maine's finest custom-furniture makers and one of its most serious artists and art dealers. As such, his new work maintains a dramatic tension between the finesse of its craftsmanship and its willful failure as furniture.

"The most basic meaning of these pieces," says Paluska, surveying two dozen examples of his work in a Portland gallery, "is to ask you to look at furniture differently, to appreciate what gives me so much pleasure -- the joinery, how things are put together."

Paluska came to fine art and furniture-making in midlife, having taught English literature at Governor Dummer Academy in Byfield, Boston's Wheelock College, and Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, in the 1960s and '70s. A self-taught woodworker, he left academe in 1973 to build houses and furniture.

In the dim woodworking shop attached to his ICON Contemporary Art gallery on a side street in Brunswick, Paluska crafts wooden tables, chairs, beds, and cabinets that are contemporary cousins to 18th- and 19th-century country furniture. His gallery, however, largely features abstract art, including his own subdued grid paintings.

It was while building pedestals for some abstract metal sculpture that the craftsman and the artist in Paluska finally merged. A few early pieces simply rearranged conventional elements. A work entitled Jog ($1,000) is a mahogany table with half of its top offset to one side. Stack ($1,000) is a cherry table, two legs and two sides of which have been mounted on top so that it must lean against a wall.

Later pieces tend to have a more anthropomorphic inclination, such that Kiss ($1,500) is a pair of ash side chairs, each missing one leg and joined at the seats. Some of the more elaborate compositions conjure small, mute dramas. Sew ($2,500) is essentially just a leather-seated chair penetrating a drop-leaf table, yet it has the concentrated presence of a figure at a worktable.

Paluska says it often strikes viewers and, indeed, himself that there is a sense of wasted effort about lavishing such attention on something so useless, but that is, after all, the essence of art.

"In a sense," says Paluska, "they are an attempt to get at the ultimate principle of chairness or tableness, so that they have echoes of the life of furniture they might have had. I like the fact that they can be put on a pedestal and carefully lit so they throw shadows and drawings. On the other hand, you could just stick them in your bedroom or living room and not pay any attention to them at all, just let them be an ironic comment on the rest of your furnishings."

Duane Paluska's ICON Contemporary Art is located at 19 Mason Street, Brunswick, Maine, 207-725-8157.

Edgar Allen Beem is a freelance writer. He lives in Maine.

In a spring show at the June Fitzpatrick Gallery in Portland, Maine, from left, the "Couple" stool, the "Sew" table and chair, and "Point," a three-legged chair. In a spring show at the June Fitzpatrick Gallery in Portland, Maine, from left, the "Couple" stool, the "Sew" table and chair, and "Point," a three-legged chair. (Photo / Sandy Agrafiotis)
Paluska in his workshop. Paluska in his workshop. (Photo / Sandy Agrafiotis)
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