“Some Reliable Truths About Chairs” is the result of curator (and painter) Janice Moore’s obsession with chairs. It is not a design show, but rather a fine art feast plated with playful wit and garnished with some choice sprigs of philosophy. It features sculpture, paintings, collages and photographs – but no usable chairs.

The Union of Maine Visual Artists Gallery at the Portland Media Center on Congress Street has been a hotbed of activity over the past two years with mixed, though ever-improving, results. Moore, who was joined by erstwhile curator of the University of Southern Maine’s Atrium Gallery Robyn Holman as the guest juror, has mounted a smart and entertaining show with a strong mix of rising talents and well-established professionals.

Some of the art follows straight-forward depictions of chairs: Harold Garde’s works from the 1980s are particularly notable for their success as strong paintings. Other works are humorous scenes observed in real life, such as Dave Wade’s “Hotseat” (an infrared red chair in the snow) and Lesley McVane’s “Out of Order,” which smartly plays the double entendre (the literal order of numbers and the idea of a sign conveying “this thing is broken”) with a street snap view of numbered chairs not quite aligned by the numbers painted on them. And there is a surprising body of work that goes deep on philosophical considerations. The chair has long played a rhetorical role in Western philosophy: More than 2,000 years ago, Plato used the chair to explain his understanding of “truth”: Any specific chair is merely an illustration of the “ideal Form,” which, for Platonists, is the “true reality.” (I am assuming Plato is the ultimate source of the “truths” in the exhibition title.)

“Two Chairs on Yellow Floor,” by Harold Garde, acrylic on gesso primed canvas. Photo courtesy of Harold Garde

But beyond Plato’s essentialism, chairs have played some very unusual conceptual roles over the centuries of Western culture. They can be markers of poverty (e.g., Vincent van Gogh’s self-portrait as a simple three-legged stool) or power (thrones), but they are also used as markers of absence; an empty chair means someone isn’t there. And this topic is poignantly considered throughout the show. Natasha Mayers conflates the notion of “empty suit” with the emptiness of chairs in her creepily brilliant “Chair People.” Lauren O’Neal’s “Stage” treats piled chairs in an elevator as pieces on a stage – uncannily uncomfortable because they are uninhabitable. And this logic is reinforced by Ann Tracy’s “Homage to Ionesco,” a wall assemblage with piles of tiny chairs – doubly unusable because of their vertical orientation on the wall. Tracy’s homage directly references the French playwright’s 1952 absurdist masterpiece, “The Chairs.” (In French, it’s “Les Chaises,” and I am fascinated by the fact that “chair” means “flesh” in French.) It’s a brutal, post-apocalyptic play in which an “Old Man” and an “Old Woman” (the anti-Adam and Eve) prepare chairs for a gathering. An Orator is going to explain the Old Man’s discovery, which we come to assume is something like the ultimate Truth. But the world, it seems, is at its end (as opposed to its Biblical beginning). Invisible guests arrive and the couple commits suicide because, well, life couldn’t get any better. And then the Orator arrives and he is, unexpectedly, an actual actor. But we come to find he’s a deaf mute. Language, before an empty audience, is therefore dead and what Ionesco presses is this palpable sense of absence – the void. What goes up, maybe, must come down.

“Out of Order” by Lesley MacVane. Photo courtesy of Janice Moore

To be sure, most of “Some Reliable Truths About Chairs” is not dark, but a surprising amount of it is. John Gardiner’s “Nearing the End” greets the entering viewer with a pair of chairs that have switched legs, one new and shiny black, the other chipped and wizened white, and they are enjoined in an oak cage of sorts. Pamela Heatherly’s nicely painted suit of canvases finds a plaintive tone of loneliness with her rooms of evening-emptied chairs. Stephanie Berry’s painting “Once Upon a Time” depicts an old armchair dissolving into the room apparently vacated by its late owner.

But not all of the deeper works are dark. Mark Wethli’s 1977 “Chair” almost crackles with reductive clarity. It is a painted wood “drawing” of a chair in almost ideally straight lines, in which our legible notion of “chair” far outstrips the limiting media of painting, sculpture and drawing. Duane Paluska’s sculptures, in which he rearranges chairs (with a master carpenter’s touch) into non-functional sculptures that maintain enough to still be read as “chair,” are no less brilliant than they are beacons of craftsmanship.

“Chair People” by Natasha Mayers. Photo courtesy of Natasha Mayers

The entire cadre of sculpture is particularly strong. Jean Noon’s “Hand Chair” is a hilarious playground of wire with a giant spring placed where your … seat would go. I have written recently about Barbara Sullivan’s shaped-chair wall frescos with their witty plays on decoration (Delft) and painting genres (landscape). Celeste Roberge’s “Spiral Stack (for LB)” is an exquisite little world traveling a stair spiraling up around a stump suspended on small chairs with more chairs at the top. It’s a dense work that denies easy unpacking, but the fantasy elements are more than sufficient to get your mind racing with interesting ideas – particularly if you guess “LB” is the great sculptor Louise Bourgeois or if this piece happens to look like your personal image of the setting for Ionesco’s “The Chairs” (and I always pictured it on an island in a lighthouse).

Janice Moore’s “Industrial Maine” at the Atrium Gallery this past spring marked her excellent debut as a curator. And she has surpassed that mark with “Some Reliable Truths about Chairs.”

Freelance writer Daniel Kany is an art historian who lives in Cumberland. He can be contacted at:

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