Francis Cape’s straightforward-appearing art communicates a world view that is complex and sophisticated. As the son of a British diplomat, Cape was born in Portugal and grew up in major cities all over the world. This, and his apprenticeship to a wood carver in York, England from 1974-79 are early markers that led to his life with artist/wife Liza Phillips. Their innovative yet traditional art practices enliven the light-filled rooms of their renovated home and studios in Narrowsburg, New York, a low-income Republican area of Sullivan County that was recently devastated by a derecho, a kind of horizontal tornado. Cape told me that thirty trees were down on his land, and I could see he was already in the process of turning some fallen trees into firewood and hauling others away. In Narrowsburg, Cape serves as a volunteer ambulance driver and head of the Democratic Party and considers this his “social practice.”
Cape’s upcoming exhibition at Esther Massry Gallery, The College of Saint Rose, in Albany NY (October 5-December 8, 2018) is part of the Gallery’s tenth anniversary celebration, and the works that Gallery Director Jeanne Flanagan has chosen are thought-provoking once the viewer tunes into their histories. Cape exhibits in a range of countries (see www.franciscape.com/) In New York, for his 2013 solo show at the Murray Guy Gallery, Roberta Smith reviewed his re-creation of seventeen backless Utopian Benches from intentional communities who held property in common (NYTimes, 7/19/2013). In 2010, he and his students re-purposed a used mobile home into an art gallery The Other End of the Line at the foot of the Highline while the Whitney Museum was under construction. By the way, that mobile home –a bit like some on the Whitney Museum construction site — is once again a family’s home in upstate New York. Cape’s art wryly comments on its own design –from hand-hewn community benches to low end housing – as it also contrasts how each object’s original era, design, and geophysical location differs from 21st Century exhibition venues.
For this exhibition, Wait, Wainscot VI, Cabinet 58, and On Main Street are fragments that each suggest something unexpected. Wait, 2002 seems like a corner with a single seat and a closed window. Cape told me, “I was thinking of (Michelangelo’s) Medici tomb and chapel in Florence, so it’s a metaphorical reference to a seat in a funerary chapel.” In this context, the enclosed white space acquires somber overtones.
Cabinet 58, 2005 is part of a series of 60 functional cabinet doors in a frame—except the finely-crafted working doors on hinges are sealed shut. Doors that will never open are a literal reminder that appearance differs from reality. Sealed doors suggest a range of premises from “nothing there” to “dark secrets.”
Wainscot VI, 2003 is a trope or play on seventies mass-produced panels for the lower parts of walls. The fragment suggests a part of a room. The bright yellow paint is a perky concealer of thin faux panels imprinted with photos of wood grain. Paint hides the fact that today’s “wainscot” is a fiction alluding to its British solid wood ancestor made of fine imported oak.
On Main Street, 2005 refers to the architectural fragments that Gordon Matta Clark rescued from old buildings. Above the desk is a photo of the image directly across from the desk –an object outside of itself that situates the viewer between the photo and the object in the photo. While this corner desk is trying to “fit in” to its space in the Esther Massry Gallery, the photos on the back wall show the views from two other locations where it was shown –Sullivan County and New York City. So this work simultaneously suggests that it does and does not belong to the space it’s in.
The three tables in the center of the gallery connect Cape’s art to the world at large. Night Table, 2007 invites us to not get stuck in corners of our own making, to dive into our dreams without bedside props or pills. Occasional Table, Model 7, 2008 is either incomplete or already falling apart. It is a weak copy of a Utopian model as it relates to the photo at its base –one frame of the massive devastation in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.
It also reminds us that Puerto Rico and its citizens have not yet recovered from hurricanes Irma and Maria that destroyed basic services over a year ago. Oil Table, 2010 is a table from New Orleans that conjures the massive BP Deepwater Horizon gulf oil spill that year: due to the rig’s cost-cutting design, profits got in the way of safety standards. The loss of eleven human and countless marine lives has been literally covered up with a decorative swirly oil paint surface.
Each work brings together and comments upon the hidden histories of objects we take for granted. Francis Cape’s art asks us to pay close attention to how things are made, their life stories, if and how they function, and what this tells us.
By Jan Garden Castro
 All quotes from Castro-Cape conversations on 5.24.18.