What is it about a fallen tree that sparks creative ideas in many artist’s minds? Could it be the heft and solidity of the trunk, or the unique patterns of the woodgrain? Perhaps it is the notion that, unlike stone and metal, wood is a living material that changes over time. Timber, now on view at the Mansion at Strathmore, explores these notions, highlighting the versatility of wood as a medium of artistic expression. The group show features both regional and national artists who place wood at the center of their practice. While aluminum, steel, paint, fiber and even video make appearances, these materials serve only to highlight or contrast the visual texture of the wood itself. East City Art
The exhibition is also notable for the way in which it mixes works of fine art with those of fine craft. That is to say, objects of a more or less functional nature such as chairs, tables and boxes are shown alongside items that translate wood into sculptural forms. In some instances, the grain of the wood—its swirling patterns and coloration—is the sole color palette drawing the viewer’s attention. In other cases, the artist chooses to focus on the malleability of the wood and its ability to contort to the artist’s whims. By blurring the lines between “fine art” and “craft”, the exhibition highlights the similarities between these approaches to woodworking.
Unexpected processes in manipulating wood directly engage the viewer at the entrance to the exhibition. Boomtown Bear by Emily White stands over visitors as they make their way up the stairs into the main exhibition space. While a few strategically-placed steel panels suggest skin and fur, White emphasizes the internal structure of the beast, allowing for the individual wooden slats to suggest bone and sinew. A similar approach is taken in her work Fleet featuring a flock of birds whose flapping wings are created from minute pieces of wood. These works highlight one major theme within the exhibition whereby artists focus on wood as a living entity, at times even anthropomorphizing the material, such as in Lorenzo Cardim’s Limp Wrist, which includes a delicately-rendered human hand. Though Cardim’s humanoid form is an outlier, explorations of wood as a living organism continue throughout the exhibition. We can see this, for example, in Lynda Smith-Bügge’s Ascending Helis series of branches covered in mushroom-like forms (cast in wood) and in George Lorio’s Clear Cut which—to my mind—ruminates on the destruction of a forest. A similar feeling of loss comes across in Joanna Platt’s Phantom Limb, a plywood board featuring a small embedded video of a forest in motion.
Other artists focus less on the lifecycle of the tree and instead shift their attention to the materiality of wood in its present inert form. By focusing on shape, line and color, these artists have much in common with painters working in both abstract and minimalist traditions. Rebecca Hirsh’s Camembert emphasizes the pliability of wood, using discarded, round Camembert cheese boxes in lieu of canvas to add dimensionality to her patterns of color. Lara Mann’s trio of works Vert, Blue Blush and Badge contrast wood tones with bright hues of pinks, blues and greens. Tazuko Ichikawa emphasizes the malleability of wood with Fold 3 and Fold 1, both of which feature layers of pine wood folding back upon itself like thick wool felt or rubber.
The second broad category of work includes objects whose end design can serve a functional purpose in addition to bringing beauty to a room. While the works included here are imbued with artistic sensibility, they are not meant merely to be gazed upon; rather, they also invite the viewer to sit, to perhaps hang a coat or rest a pile of books. Indeed, they may even hold precious possessions. And while their creator’s chief concern may emphasize function over form, they also pay close attention to notions of color, line and the interplay between solid mass and empty space.
A quartet of works by sisters Rachel Heimgartner and Audrey Heimgartner Brown highlights this interplay between function and creativity. Their contributions to the show include keepsake boxes and serving trays whose basic shapes come alive with complex patterns inlaid on their austere surfaces. Peacock Tray for example is a simply-shaped, rectangular piece of maple wood. The woodgrain’s honey-colored tones are pleasing, but unremarkable in and of themselves. What elevates the tray to a work of art is the delicately-patterned filigree etched into the surface of the wood. The complex pattern resembles a lattice-work of fanned shapes reminiscent of gingko leaves, each delineated by subtle shades of pink. The work evinces artistic vision above and beyond simple form. Also playing with form is William Peirce’s Multi-Species Vessel series which feature wood works in the shape of baskets or perhaps vases. The color-blocked inlay of the various woods form visually-abstract patterns on the visible surfaces of the wood, but what I find most notable about these works are the circular voids carved out of the sides. Multi-species Vessel I, for example, features three openings within the sides of the vessel. They present a visually-sculptural juxtaposition between mass and void. Intriguingly they also partially negate the functionality of the vessel itself. A vase that leaks or basket that fails to contain its contents is reminiscent of Duchamp’s Readymades, like the bicycle wheel on a stool that rendered both unusable. The issues around those works raised over a century ago are still being discussed.
Which brings us to a curious juncture in the exhibition—what to make of pieces that appear to fall outside of these two broad definitions? Andrew Flander’s Tough Trough Table features a horizontal surface bisected by a grooved depression which partially negates its usefulness as a functional object. Art Drauglis’ Calliope functions more as a room divider than a true musical instrument. Ellie Richard’s series of contorted mops and brooms instills a sculptural component within each object while simultaneously destroying the articles’ utility. And what do we make of Mark Sfrirri’s Rejects from the Bat Factory: 25th Anniversary Edition which feature five baseball bats carved from ash that would be useless in an actual game? These works renounce any distinction between notions of art or craft, refusing to be pigeon-holed as either.
In blurring these lines, these artists seem to suggest that we have arrived at a moment when perceived hierarchies between art and craft cease to be relevant. Arnold d’Epagnier’s Hawkbill, Chickadee, 8 Otters and Elvis epitomizes this notion by hanging his tabletop on the wall like a painting, forcing the viewer to visually dissect the Rorschach-looking woodgrain with the same theoretical consideration they would of an abstract acrylic on canvas.
It is worth considering to what degree wood, as the primary exhibition material, encourages these types of conversations. Do we react differently to visual properties of wood, subliminally knowing that it was once a living, “breathing” entity, than we do other artistic mediums? In choosing to create with wood, are artists attempting to engage our emotions through our senses of sight and touch? How would our emotional tenor differ if these works were all cast in stone or steel rather than wood? While individual artists themselves provide few answers, as a collective, the curatorial premise suggests that wood has a mysterious, powerful connection to the human psyche.
Timber at the Mansion at Strathmore is on view through October 20, 2019. For more information, visit their website here.
Banner Image: Limp Wrist (2016) by Lorenzo Cardim; Radiata pine, poplar and nail polish. Photo for East City Art by Eric Hope.