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A chair to see at the High - Daniel Silliman

My dad used to have this big, blue easy chair. It was overstuffed and basically an open invitation to fall asleep as soon as you levered the handle and threw up the foot rest.

My dad, predictably, would fall asleep there almost every evening -- latest mystery novel open on his snoring chest.

After a while, something broke on the left side and the chair was permanently tilted. When the lever was back, it was worse and anyone falling asleep there would find themselves sleeping on a leftward slant.

Still, it was pretty comfortable.

I was thinking about chairs, this weekend, while walking around the High Museum of Art in Atlanta. I was in the modern art section, up on the fourth floor by the skyway, when I walked around a corner and saw this plush red chair that kind of looked like a concave bean-bag on legs. It was a weird-looking chair, a comfortable-looking chair, and I stared at it for a while.

I think the High is kind of disappointing, for a city the size of Atlanta. It compares more with the museums I've seen in Toledo, Ohio, or Portland, Ore., than with the really good museums in Chicago, New York, or Philadelphia, Pa. The recent expansion has pushed the High in the right direction, though, and I really like two things about the High, and those things made it worth my visit on Saturday afternoon.

One, the High has a selection of chairs, in the modern art section. I know that normally this would work as a joke about modern art, but the chairs are sort of scaled down architecture, examples of the style you can see. You can't fit skyscrapers into a museum and even if you walk into a building that defines Art Deco, Romanesqe Revival, or Memphis Group, it's all but impossible to get any sort of sense of what your seeing. It's just too big.

A chair, though, is perfect. It's not normally thought of as art, but I can take in a chair and see, there, some ways the style worked. They had a chair that was lime-colored vinyl and chrome and the lines made it look like a rocket thrusting into the future. They had one made out of orange circles that looked like some theoretical cross of a Warhol painting and an atomic sub-particle structure.

I normally think of a chair just as a chair, but the museum makes the point, through the display, that the everyday objects you're sitting on capture something of the period, the mood and the artistic developments and the ideas that are being passed from experts, who are dealing with them literally, to the general public, thinking about them symbolically and metaphorically.

The second reason the High was worth my money, even though it's not the greatest museum, is the folk art. The place has a fine collection of Georgia art by untrained artists, the kind of stuff that was probably considered junk but now, on display, is fascinating. I haven't seen that, at any other museums. There's always a display of something local -- Native American carvings in Seattle's museum, car designs in Detroit's -- but I've never seen a folk art collection. I love that section of the High: Especially Howard Finster's oddly colorful depiction of the apocalypse and his prophet-like ramblings painted in block letters, and Mattie Lou O'Kelly's panoramic pictures of people at social events.

I love the way the folk art captures a lot, about life and love and living in the southeast, that's never touched by other artwork. The High really outdoes everyone else, with the folk art collection, maybe by banning the bias that keeps outsider art outside at other places.

With both the chairs and the folk art, the High does something simple and brilliant, taking art that's not perceived as art and makes me look at it in a different way. When I saw the chairs and the folk art, things you don't usually see in a big marble museum where displays are meant to enshrine rather than display, I had to look in a slower, more thoughtful way. I had to look like I was trying to see, instead of assuming I already did.

Which is exactly what art should do.

Daniel Silliman covers crime for the Clayton News Daily. He can be reached at (770) 478-5753, ext. 254, or via e-mail at dsilliman@news-daily.com.