Article by Leopold Kowolik

A Cabinet as Sculpture and Object

N THE THIRD QUARTER of the twentieth century, the historic question of object and sculpture was reaching an apex. The situation at that time was best summarized by Michael Fried in his famous 1967 essay “Art and Objecthood” in which he encapsulated the concerns of the minimalists: “They are opposed to sculpture that…is made part by part, by addition, composed…In which specific elements separate from the whole.” This tension continues to motivate and disturb sculptors today. In fact, this is only a recent part of the entire theoretical canon that has influenced Rachel Fleming. Her Collector’s Carcass is a cabinet of curiosities designed to collect the history of the idea from the Renaissance through to the present day.

Always interested in theory, from her earliest days Fleming wanted to make artworks, especially sculpture, that related conceptual ingenuity to material skill. This union of the conceptual in the material, discovered during a BFA at Waterloo, developed further as she increasingly felt it essential that viewers have a physical interaction with art. She wanted her artwork to be tactile.

Fleming made her cabinet of curiosities in the final-year cabinetry class at Sheridan College. When considering this project, she was inspired by former craft theorist Glenn Adamson’s 2014 essay “The Labor of Division” in which he traces the rise of compartmentalized cabinets from the original Wunderkammers of the Renaissance period.

Following Adamson’s idea, Fleming wanted to see how cabinets of curiosities live on in our houses today. That’s the hook for her—no matter how conceptual or esoteric or curated, she sees her art in a domestic environment. It may belong in a gallery, but one’s house is such a gallery.

Historically, the idea of a cabinet of curiosities was as a container, a housing or embodiment of an eclectic set of objects that reveal through their juxtaposition something of the world and something of the collector. By showing the collection, the collector could display and share contemplation of the wondrous and beautiful.

Fleming began her project by breaking the rules. To make a cabinet, first a carcass is made—this is the exterior frame—but then usually planar elements such as drawers and sides are added to enclose the space. Fleming’s Collector’s Carcass is linear rather than planar; this is more frame than cabinet. At the summit of the minimal frame sit the glass-topped display drawers. Three drawers: the left with horizontal separators, the right with vertical, and the middle with movable divisions. The three drawers and their compartmentalizing differences are identified by the original labels to curiosities— naturalia, scientifica, and artefacta—each embodying the Enlightenment cusp between magic and science.

These categories, developed in room-sized (cabinet) collections, endured as the cabinetry developed. Recent scholarship has added a new dimension to understanding the room as it became the cabinet of collected curiosities. Rather than thinking of it as a place of display, it becomes a place of concealment. Glenn Adamson makes the point in the essay that inspired Fleming, “Over the course of the 17th century, things that were once held in rooms… were increasingly displayed within specialized cabinets…What had been an open viewing situation …was closed off…The cabinetization of knowledge could be seen not as a process of unveiling and categorization but rather as a process of hiding away, of secreting.” It is with this in mind that we can begin to understand the significance of Collector’s Carcass.

It is perhaps an afterthought to point out that Rachel Fleming’s cabinet of curiosities is empty—it has no natural, scientific, or artistic artifacts. To find the curiosity we need to consider the craftsmanship applied to highlevel contemporary furniture and art like Fleming’s, and we need to look at the words themselves for the clue to understanding. In the times in which Wunderkammer collections were developing (especially the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries), “curiosity” meant what we know it to mean: a feeling of interest prompting one to enquire into. But it also meant careful attention to detail, proficiency attained by skillful application, precision. What we would call craftsmanship. These are the curiosities of Fleming’s cabinet—the parts of furniture making that are not immediately apparent, especially to those unfamiliar with sophisticated furniture work. These magical moments hidden within a piece like this deliver something sculptural that transcends function. As Fleming says, “There are small moments that I put wonder into an object,” especially well-made joints, elements of the best quality joinery. “But when you’re finished it always turns out better than you expected.” This is the contemporary magic.

So although furniture is open to immediate use and understanding (no scratching one’s head at modern sculpture: a plywood box or a row of bricks on the floor), it is also secretive. The hidden elements known to the maker are positioned for use such that the owner “can’t screw them up,” as Fleming says, because unlike modernist art, they do not just let the viewer see whatever they like. The utility of furniture is a guide in receiving the wisdom of the sculpture.

This empty cabinet of curiosities is a collection of skill, scrupulousness, and attention to detail. These are the original words of curiosity. These specific elements combine invisibly but powerfully to produce a singular work that is useful art at once displaying and concealing, object and sculpture. This is the history and future of furniture.

Leopold Kowolik is the editor of Studio magazine and has written for The Journal of Modern Craft, Craft Research, and The Journal of William Morris Studies; he is working on a chapter for the forthcoming book Craft on Demand to be published by IB Tauris. Leopold is also an instructor of writing and the histories of art and of craft at Sheridan College in Ontario and he has degrees in history and art history from the University of Chicago and the University of Edinburgh.

Collector’s Carcass
White oak, soap finish
Cork, glass, brass hardware
57 7/8” x 19 7/8” x 40”
Photograph by Rachel Fleming