January 14, 2014 - Francis Cape
January 14, 2014

Francis Cape

Francis Cape, Utopian Benches, 2011–2012. Installation view, Arcadia University Art Gallery, Glenside, Pennsylvania. Poplar, 17 benches; dimensions variable. Courtesy of Greenhouse Media. Collection of Nion T. McEvoy, San Francisco.

Francis Cape: Utopian Benches
January 21–March 15, 2014

Reception: Thursday, January 30, 7–9pm

Artist talk: Friday, January 31, 6pm
Francis Cape in conversation with Hesse McGraw

Screening and conversation: Tuesday, February 25, 7:30pm
Women on the Land: Creating Conscious Community, a documentary by Carmen Goodyear and Laurie York

Lecture: Tuesday, March 4, 7:30pm
“Forms of Function: The Architecture of Utopian Communities in Nineteenth-Century America” by Irene Cheng

Walter and McBean Galleries
San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI)
800 Chestnut Street
San Francisco, CA 94133
Hours: Tuesday 11 am–7 pm
Wednesday–Saturday 11 am–6 pm


Francis Cape’s Utopian Benches is an installation of 17 poplar benches arranged in rows that together fill SFAI’s Walter and McBean Galleries. Each bench was precisely replicated from existing benches crafted by American communal societies. Their form and design closely reflect their use within the specific community, and by extension their organizational structure and collective values. Of this work, Cape has proposed, “material culture reflects social structure.”

In selecting societies, Cape focused on nineteenth-century communities that shared a craft tradition—the earliest bench produced by the Ephrata Cloister, Pennsylvania, is dated to the mid-1700s, while the most recent bench is in continuous use by Camphill Village Kimberton Hills, also in Eastern Pennsylvania. Each bench in the exhibition was meticulously reconstructed of poplar sourced near his studio in Narrowsburg, New York. The benches are shown alongside Cape’s suite of drawings that serve both as archival renderings and construction documents.  

Utopian Benches recognizes these reductive, proto-modern seats as cultural equalizers and essential components in the creation of nonhierarchical spaces for conversation and communion, be it religious, political, or otherwise. Their arrangement creates an egalitarian field that levels proscenium divisions; here there is no stage or audience—we sit together.

For the past 20 years, Cape has explored the cultural context and social triggers of interior architecture and furniture. Utopian Benches is a work spurred by his specific interest in the capacity of the simplest furniture form to express fundamental shared values of intentional communities. For individuals whose lives were often arranged in radical opposition to normative culture, coming together in meeting halls, or around a meal, was central to their utopian ambition.

In siting these benches in a gallery context, Cape reflects on the legacy of their communal histories and origin, and establishes a place for dialogue, in support of new forms of exchange. Throughout the exhibition, the Walter and McBean Galleries and Utopian Benches will offer shared seating for formal and informal programs. In this way, a connection is forged between the intent of the benches and catalyzing ongoing communal and collective activities. 

Utopian Benches was originally commissioned by Arcadia University Gallery, Glenside, Pennsylvania. The exhibition is accompanied by We Sit Together: Utopian Benches from the Shakers to the Separatists of Zoar, published by Princeton Architectural Press. Utopian Benches is loaned from the collection of Nion T. McEvoy. Special thanks to Murray Guy, New York. 

SFAI’s Exhibitions and Public Programs provide direct access to artists and ideas that advance our culture. The Walter and McBean Galleries, established in 1969, present exhibitions at the forefront of contemporary art practice. The gallery serves as a laboratory for innovative and adventurous projects and commissions new work from emerging and established artists. SFAI’s public programs develop meaningful interactions between artists, students, and audiences through lectures, education opportunities, and artist-driven experiences. Together, the exhibitions and public programs of the San Francisco Art Institute promote an environment that catalyzes the creative processes of its student artists and thinkers, and creates intimate connections between the SFAI community and the public.

SFAI’s Exhibitions and Public Programs are made possible by the generosity of donors and sponsors. Major support is provided by Grants for the Arts/San Francisco Hotel Tax Fund. 

San Francisco Art Institute presents Francis Cape
Francis Cape
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