2012 Essay | What is Beautiful? Contemporary Wood Art

2012 Essay | What is Beautiful? Contemporary Wood Art

What is Beautiful? Contemporary Wood Art

Charlotte V. Wainwright

Ted Lott
William Zimmer Gallery

The Collectors of Wood Art (CWA) are pleased to present their sixth special exhibit for SOFA CHICAGO.  Beginning in 2002 with Collectors Choice, CWA has pursued its mission to elevate wood art “to the stature of fine art.” This ambitious undertaking began well; the first presentation included work selected by CWA board members, curators, collectors and gallery directors whose cumulative choices presented 25 artists “doing the best and most innovative work in the [wood] field. Sam Maloof and Wendell Castle were also honored by inclusion. Collectors Choice produced a vivid snapshot of established and emerging wood artists that set a standard for future exhibitions. 
The CWA exhibitions, like the biennial Forum they also sponsor, are ways in which the organization studies and documents the significance of wood as an essential material for contemporary artists. The industrial production of wooden building materials, furniture and other traditionally handmade wooden objects seemed destined to overwhelm craftsman made production in the late 19th century.  Wood was also threatened by the advent of new materials in the 20th, such as plastics, Formica, Plexiglas, Lucite and composite materials.  When combined with factory production these materials seemed to better represent and make affordable the popular aesthetics of art moderne and mid-century modern furniture as well as functional objects destined for the consumer market. The demise of the handmade, however, was not to be.

Steve Sinner

The growth of post WW2 affluence that included an expanding educated middle class, and the inclusion of craft education in many university art departments reshaped interest in crafts. Just as glass was transformed by new methods into a studio craft, so too wood was reinvented as opportunity for personal expression in the studio.  Two particular avenues were opened: the success of lathe turned objects for use and decoration fostered by makers like Bob Stocksdale, Rude Osolnick, Edward Moultrop and others became a staple of the increasing number of craft shows.  The useful object, also made of turned wood and easily replicated enabled the acquisition of well-designed and produced domestic pieces that were affordable.
A similar transformation occurred with furniture.  Makers like George Nakashima, Wharton Esherick, Wendell Castle and Sam Maloof concentrated on handmade and painstakingly produced furniture. Other designers, Milo Bauman and Hans Wegner for example, learned from Scandinavian designers like Alvar Alto and created prototypes that could be made more affordable.  For two decades and more, their influential visions revitalized furniture design and production in addition to making work in the studio.  They shaped an aesthetic that expanded the range and expressiveness of furniture, providing great pieces for museums and collectors and a higher standard of expectations for the consumer.  Without these two extremely vigorous groups of artists who were cultivated and promoted by committed curators and dealers, the collectors who gathered in the 90s would have had much less to collect or exhibit as they reviewed wood’s recent past and looked to the future. A recurring question, especially in the context of SOFA, is the shape of that future.
The Furniture Society and the American Association of Woodturners come from the same wide and complex field that drives contemporary making, although the specificity of the work emphasized by those two organizations provides a contrast with the more overtly inclusive mission of CWA.  All three organizations document the evolution of crafts generally, from the functional and useful to makers whose purposes lie elsewhere as this current special exhibit will demonstrate. With this challenge in mind the CWA began to ask museum curators to choose the work for this special exhibit, and to document the growing and changing cadre of artists whose education, outlook and aesthetics, like the wider craft field, is more culturally diverse and historically informed.

Edward Ross
CWA’s special exhibit in 2010, Is Ornament a Crime?: Rethinking the Role of Decoration in Contemporary Wood, was curated by Cindi Strauss, Decorative Arts and Design Curator at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. She drew her inspiration for the exhibition from Austrian architect Adolf Loos’ 1908 essay “Ornament and Crime.”  By asking artists for the elimination of carving, inlay and other kinds of patterning as well as spalting, knots or burl Strauss focused on an ideal kind of woodwork. The resulting exhibit presented pieces that illustrated a complex conversation among the various makers.  Some work clearly referenced the powerful role of turning in the 20th century evolution of wood’s resurgence into the art field. Other work struck notes of a clarity and simplicity of purpose that recalled the modernism of the 1950s and early 1960s.  None of the work, however, could be easily mistaken as from earlier decades.  Strauss hoped to stimulate a conversation between the viewer and the objects, which she very ably accomplished by her call for entries and her curatorial decisions.
This year’s special exhibit, What is Beautiful, takes a deliberately less direct approach.  It was my hope to engage as diverse a field as possible to demonstrate the many ways in which the movement has expanded, and to suggest that museum curators, gallery owners and collectors all find the ground unpredictable, which I consider a good sign.

The work in this special exhibit was selected from nearly 80 submissions in response to the call, including five individuals who contacted me to ask if they could enter late (no); and two others who proposed projects for consideration.  From those submissions I selected work by 23 artists. Seven of which – Christian Burchard, Clay Foster, John Jordan, Michael Peterson, Binh Pho, Norm Sartorious and Steve Sinner – have been in at least one other CWA special exhibit at SOFA.  There were also a number of makers who I expected to see – makers who like those listed above who have been in one, two or even three CWA at SOFA special exhibits.  These makers, and others that have repeated, could be said to have achieved a kind of classic status in this genre.  Their work is to a greater or lesser degree familiar if not predictable, their competence, indeed mastery is without question and people in the field look forward to their new work with the expectation of success and engagement.  Robyn Horn and Stoney Lamar, to cite two familiar, important makers, continue to reach beyond expectations and to make beautiful, exciting work. A cadre of mature makers lead a strong field of colleagues and students where turning, stacking, carving, dyeing, painting, segmenting, inlay, traditional joinery techniques and reuse of materials constitute an increasingly diverse field of work.
During the past six months I have paid particular attention to work in wood in North Carolina, where I live.   At Penland School of Crafts two resident artists, Tom Shields and Dustin Farnsworth, are producing new work that grasps attention with regard to both the process and the content.  Jack Mauch, a Penland Core Fellow, uses function as the springboard for his ideas; his small table was chosen for this CWA special exhibit. Last fall the Asheville gallery, Blue Spiral, featured work by Robyn Horn, Bob Trotman, Stoney Lamar, George Peterson and Sylvie Rosenthal.  Brent Skidmore also had work on view there.  Andrew Fullwood had a one-person exhibition of his monumental pieces at the Hickory Museum of Art followed by one in Durham.  The most conservative work by these makers is the Mauch table, made by the youngest artist. Its formal inspiration and origins are the high style, elegantly designed furniture of the 1950s; its delicious and asymmetrical milk painted top has ancestors in American folk furniture.  This table, along with Robert Galusha’s K Chair represent the power of function as inspiration and link these pieces to the persistence of furniture as a means for expression which seems appropriate for a CWA exhibit.

Tom Eckert

Other work in the CWA special exhibit is quite different. Some is quietly disturbing; like Jim Christiansen’s faux teapot, Bittersweet, and Tom Eckert’s Conjuring Book.  Other work is more insistently confrontational.  Tom Lott’s Sit Stay unites a “found” traditional chair with a playhouse construction that transforms both into a sculpture different from each whose commentary on aspects of American culture is acerbic.  Edward Ross’s Prosthesis 14 and Prosthesis 15 would be mildly amusing if what the forms referenced were not sad reminders of the price of warfare.  Clay Foster’s Precious Metal, a chalice, uniting the discarded with the rare harkens back to a kind of elemental beauty but also raises the flag of reuse as well as challenging the viewer’s basic expectations regarding wood.
A diffusion of ideas and efforts in woodwork is to be expected.  Fifteen or twenty or even forty years of wood art is but the beginning as these and other makers find their ways into the world of craft, design and contemporary art.  The Collectors of Wood Art have given the viewer another look at the field and as with its earlier exhibitions continues the conversation into the present.
Charlotte V. Wainwright, Hon AIA, Phd.
Founding Director of the Gregg Museum of Art & Design, NCSU, Raleigh, NC

Published in conjunction with the SOFA CHICAGO 2012 special exhibit What is Beautiful?  Changing Perspectives in Contemporary Wood Art.

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