Jessi Reaves’s magic studio dust

In Jessi Reaves’s recent exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia, her sculptural furniture was integrated both formally and functionally with a group of surreal still-life paintings by fellow New Yorker Ginny Casey. Curator Charlotte Ickes described these complementary bodies of work as “two solo exhibitions.” The juxtaposition with Casey’s intensely colored paintings of unfinished objects and hovering body parts set in cavernous ateliers placed Reaves’s work within a context of conversations about the artist studio and the erotics of the psychoanalytic part-object.

A pair of green plastic garden-center chairs, Chair 1 and Chair 2 (both 2016) faced gallery visitors at the exhibition’s entrance. These two chairs were once one&emdash;the original chair had been roughly split in two, its spine and ribs built out and repaired using sections of driftwood and highly patterned fabric padding, then secured with a mixture of glue and a mystical-sounding substance that Reaves terms “studio dust.” Studio dust looks like sawdust, but it is laden with meaning, having been gathered in the place where the artistic magic happens. Reaves molds this dust into new, often extravagant shapes; she also uses it to mend or patch together pieces. Split Mess (Barley Twist Lamps) (2017) for example, is augmented with curly, seahorse legs molded in this way. This and other lamps by Reaves—including the gangly and drunkenly leaning Worthless Lump (Lamp) (2017)—punctuate the gallery, lending a theatrically domestic feel with their warm yellow light.

Several intricate wall-based works appeared both surreal and functional. Shelf with Pockets & Braid (2017) displayed subtle gradations of color and texture, including smooth silvery-grey-stained driftwood, copper-toned wood shavings, and an accidental-looking blue stain on pale chair caning. The two pockets were literally attached to the shelf as if sewn onto a coat: one was lined with cream leather, the other with cherry-red velvet, erotically daring the visitor to put their hand inside and feel around for precious things. An angular construction of blonde wood, Night Cabinet (Little Miss Attitude) (2016) is partially zippered into a translucent, glittery black and bronze silk costume, like a flimsy cocktail dress. Both of these works raise questions about the meaning of keeping certain elements partially hidden while others are visible and embellished to excess.

Visitors were permitted to sit on most of Reaves’s sculptures. Throughout the gallery, people bent down, gingerly, over the works, including the bright, shiny Slipcovered Chair (Pink Gag), (2017) and the drooping, leather-clad Mutant Butterfly Chair (2017), touching them and guessing how each structure came to be. Reaves’s work is filled with playfulness. Dog’s Toy Coat Rack (2015) appears to be made from chewed wood, with a lived-in charm. A Modernist, Eames-style coat rack (complete with spherical coat hooks) had the uncannily near-human feel of one of Louise Bourgeois’s “Personages”—a tall slender presence, its emptiness became a silent welcome to hang up our coats and play the role of invited guests in this imaginary home-studio scene.