Can You Really Sit on These? The Answer is Yes

Filled with furniture made of aluminum tabs, Clare Graham’s CAFAM show exuberantly recreates his Highland Park studio

The world’s most unusual love seat and sofa are not merely on display these days at L.A.’s Craft and Folk Art Museum—you can sit right down on them. What you’ll probably notice first about these un-upholstered pieces of furniture is the unique material they are made out of: pop tops. That’s right, the kind you pull off or push in to open a can of soda. All in all, the seats and their matching table incorporate about 1.5 million of the aluminum tabs. Artist Clare Graham estimates he has gathered and used something like 13 or 14 million pop tops in various works.

Rather than gluing the identical metal scraps together, Graham looped a handful of pop tops at a time onto a long wire that he weaved through a hardwood cloth screen stretched over each furniture piece’s welded steel frame like a needlepoint canvas. “And then I tuft[ed],” he explains, “with a loop of ten above, ten below, ten above, ten below—packing them very densely and tightly. So you’re actually sitting on something like a hand-knotted rug.” Because all the individual pop tops are thus strung instead of stuck together, Graham points out, they can move slightly when someone sits on them, so each seat “is not quite as thorny and hard as it would be otherwise.”

This pop top furniture set occupies only one corner of the current exhibition on the second floor of CAFAM, which recreates something of the atmosphere of Graham’s MorYork gallery and community art center in Highland Park. The show’s title, The Answer is Yes, alludes to the open door policy at MorYork that Graham maintains in response to the constant stream of requests from neighbors and friends to use the space for “art shows, music events, book launches, political fundraisers, wedding receptions, and diverse other participations.” The gallery additionally serves as Graham’s personal “memento mori, my sort of file box, of great ideas and aesthetic epiphanies I don’t want to lose track of. We also do a lot of open houses for various school groups who want to come over and be exposed to a real imaginarium.”

Though this exhibition space in CAFAM is only about half the size of MorYork, Graham and curator Brooks Hudson Thomas have exuberantly crammed in all kinds of pieces made of all kinds of materials scavenged from recycling centers and anywhere else Graham and his support network have gone to look for buttons and bottlecaps and dominos and toy googly eyes and paint-by-numbers sets and badminton shuttlecocks and stuffed animals and…well, lots of different stuff.

“What I can produce,” Graham notes, “is entirely dependent on what I can find,” which is one of the reasons he prefers to describe his work as “craft” rather than “art.” Because the materials he uses are not those found in art supply stores, he experiments with them over an extended period of time “until their gestalt becomes apparent.” Like the pop top furniture pieces, many of his creations are “utilitarian practical objects in the tradition of craft” without the kind of “implicit content” inherent in most art-for-art’s-sake work. Among the most intriguing objects on view in his current CAFAM show are a series of 13 classical European-style “cabinets of curiosities,” all constructed with the same frame, but each with a different exterior material “skin.”

Originally from Canada, Graham studied art at Cal State Long Beach before working as an art director at Disney on theme park events and Super Bowl halftime shows. “It was a great company to work for when creative decisions were made by creative people,” he recalls. “I left at a point when the MBAs were taking over, which for me was sort of the end of the old guard Disney approach to doing things.” After ten more years working as a consultant for various Asian theme park companies, he “realized that being one’s own client was far preferable, and that’s what I’ve been doing since.”