BOSTON - Art is a painting. It is something you can put up on the wall, representing fruit, a person, a landscape. It is in a museum or goes with your sofa. It is a sculpture, usually Greek, or, if modern, consists of unexplained surfaces and masses. It is usually in a museum, too, though if your living room is big, it still might look pretty good with your sofa.
Thanks to recent innovations, art may also be a bridge wrapped in pink plastic by somebody famous. Or imaginatively piled earth declared to be a new direction by an official art expert.Art is not a chair. It is not a cupboard. You can't sit on it or drink out of it or use it for anything.
But what, then, to call Alphonse Mattia's intriguing pair of chairs, named "Grace" and "Grace's Date"? Grace looks a lot like Grace Jones; she is a tall thin valet chair with a red and blue skirt-like seat and a tough look about her wooden face. "Grace's Date" (also known as "Eddie," according to Mattia) is pretty similar; he looks tough, too, and wears an earring. You can hang a coat on them if you want. (But it would then become, for the duration, "Grace's" or "Eddie's" coat.)
Or what about Stephen Whittlesey's witty, whimsical cupboards, which, while less obviously humanoid, have a presence, almost the feeling of another person standing there?
"The Bride of Somesville" is a tall, narrow cupboard with, as its door, a plank from an old schooner found near Somesville, Maine. It has a distinct personality, and the beautiful workmanship and sophisticated idea are a joyful counterpoint to the harsh rustic quality of the materials. "The Bride" is charming, accessible; it would create an environment of imagination and delight, a feeling of freedom and sweeping possibility, in any space. It would also be a wonderful place to keep sweaters.
The cupboard format "gives me the most freedom to fool around with shapes," says Whittlesey, who has a master's degree from Columbia University and is a former Fulbright scholar.
Art can even, arguably, be a sofa. In art books you can find Salvador Dali's curvy red sofa, titled "Marilyn Monroe's Lips." You look at it at first and think it's just a sofa; then you look again and think: "Oh my gosh - lips."
So a work of art steps off the wall or out of the niche and joins you in the room, masquerading as a table. And it's almost harder to ignore than a painting or a statue, because you don't expect it, you don't expect to have to deal with it. You want to know its secrets, and you feel entitled; it's not like fine art, the eccentric uncle, to be indulged and then ignored.
Furniture artist Tom Loeser makes witty, gorgeously painted folding chairs that bolt to the wall; they can lie flat or fold out to be sat on. While the effect is of a painting, it's important that each chair can function as a chair: Without that, "it would lose a whole level of meaning, I think," Loeser says.
Another series Loeser has been working on is a group of lamps. These lamps have character, too: They have names like "Lulubelle" ("she's definitely the flashiest one") and "Barney" ("he's just a regular guy," says Loeser, grinning).
To the battleworn and unanswerable question "What is art," many craftspeople and curators say that it isn't a matter of what an object is but rather how it is - what degree of skill and feeling is brought to bear by the artist.