The Critical Mass

Wendell Castle’s walk through a particularly murky woods

The big, overstuffed chair in the living room is about to make that sad, final journey to the curb. I’m very fond of it. I wrote the bulk of a novel while sitting in that chair.

One thing’s holding up the move: Where’s the dog gonna snooze? The chair’s cushions are lopsided, the springs sagging, the result of a 90-pound Weimaraner who shows no respect for Value City craftsmanship.

Practicality. That’s a prime consideration with furniture. Unless you are Wendell Castle. He’s not a form follows function guy. His new show, “Wendell Castle Remastered,” runs through Dec. 31 at the Memorial Art Gallery. The 2 p.m. Nov. 19 talk, “Embracing Upheaval,” will likely be a declaration of war on the American living room.

The Rochester creator of the art furniture movement was his usual artful figure at the show’s opening reception; he cultivates a trim, designer-professor look in round eyeglasses and, as always, a superb jacket. Everyone wanted to talk to him, of course, and at 85 he was wearing down a little by the end of the evening. “That would never fit in my house,” I said to Castle, pointing to a nearby piece, a lamp that looks to be about 15 feet tall.

“It won’t fit in mine, either,” he said.

OK, so neither one of us lives in an airport hangar. The piece is made of a beautifully polished wood that bends upward at odd angles, like a paper clip that’s been twisted into a new shape, which is exactly how Castle came up with the form.

And he’ll worry about where it fits later. It’s all about the art of the piece. The anti-Ikea.

The exhibition is filled with preliminary sketches and finished works that seem to have been inspired by a walk in a particularly murky woods. It’s a fusion of organic and digital, technologies that mix handcrafting skills with a robot capable of precise 3D scanning, 3D modeling and computer-controlled milling that Castle has developed over the decades. The overall feel is sculptural. Black-stained layers of ash wood seamlessly come together as humongous fungus, which on second thought becomes chairs and tables. Huge discs that seem to have been cut from irregular tree stumps function as dinner tables. One table has a natural-looking rot hole in the center. The hole seems to be there so that you can see the artful design of the center post that holds it up.

I suggested to a friend that maybe the hole’s purpose was for guests to toss chicken bones into it during dinner.

“I’ve eaten at that table a few times,” he said. “Wendell said he puts holes in his tables because he’s tired of seeing people putting flower vases on them.”

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