2014 Essay | Beyond Boundaries: Wood Art for the 21st Century

2014 Essay | Beyond Boundaries: Wood Art for the 21st Century

Beyond Boundaries: Wood Art for the 21st Century

By Emily Zilber

  Tom Eckert
Cumulus Cover
basswood, paint
17 x 11 x 3

As we venture further into the twenty-first century, contemporary making is becoming increasingly interdisciplinary.  Artists of all stripes are reaching across art, craft, and design with abandon, blurring supposedly distinct categories to great impact in creativity and meaning.  This is certainly true for artists interested in the potential of wood.  What can artwork in wood look like?  Are there novel ways for wood to exist in physical space, to be shaped and formed, or to relate to the history of the medium?  In turn, what might it mean for an artist working with wood to break or push past a presumed boundary, be it social, material, aesthetic, narrative, or even personal?

Beyond Boundaries: Wood Art for the 21st Century is a special exhibit for SOFA CHICAGO organized under the auspices of Collectors of Wood Art.  The show looks at select examples of how artists working in wood from across a diverse spectrum reconsider understood boundaries and contribute to an increasingly open artistic landscape.  This exciting and expansive selection is a natural descendent of artistic boundary pushing in wood over the course of the twentieth-century.  The first generation of trailblazers working in the 1940s and 1950s - Bob Stocksdale and James Prestini among them - broke with tradition by searching for beauty in both functional and sculptural forms.  They placed priority on balanced simplicity and a direct experiencing of the material.  As new techniques, shaping methods, and notions of scale were introduced in subsequent decades by artists like Edward Moulthrop and David Ellsworth, viewer and artists alike were encouraged to rethink how those notions of beauty and form might be expanded.

Michael Bauermeister
Negative Space
maple, aluminum, stainless steel, lacquer
34 x 8 x 8


And expand they did.  In the 1980s, objects were created in more freeform style, with an increasing use of wood that had previously been considered imperfect (such as spalted and decayed woods or burls).  Simultaneously, many artists moved towards adorned surfaces (using paint, dye, inlay, allover patterning, and other methods), narrative storytelling, figuration, and the use of alternative and found materials.  One only has to look at the recent exhibition Against the Grain: Wood in Contemporary Art, Craft, and Design (Museum of Arts and Design in New York, 2013) to get a sense of just how far the field has traveled since those first breaks with tradition in the 20th century, without necessarily leaving any of those initial strides entirely behind.  Against the Grain featured a range of cross-generational artists working with wood, and touched on the aforementioned approaches alongside newer strategies.  The inclusion of video projection, computer-assisted fabrication, and performative elements reflected an ever opening set of contexts for artistic expression in wood.  This diversity can be considered a demonstration of the vitality and viability of wood as a medium for making today, empowered and informed - but unburdened - by the medium’s past. 

Beyond Boundaries: Wood Art for the 21st Century was likewise selected from a similarly diverse set of over 100 submissions received in response to the call for entries.  Several of the artists included will be familiar to those who remember previous CWA special exhibits for SOFA, including the 2010 project Is Ornament a Crime?: Rethinking the Role of Decoration in Contemporary Wood Art (curated by Cindi Strauss, Assistant Director of Programming and Curator for Modern and Contemporary Decorative Arts and Design at The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston) and 2012’s entry, What is Beautiful? Changing Perspectives in Contemporary Wood Art (curated by Charlotte V. Wainwright, Founding Director of the Gregg Museum of Art and Design, NCSU, Raleigh).  In Beyond Boundaries, we might approach the work of these artists looking for shifts in the familiar: the employment of a technique or composition that signifies a shifting of personal artistic boundaries.  This is certainly true of new work from artists including Derek Bencomo, Michael Brolly, Bud Latven, and Pascal Oudet.

Binh Pho
box elder, acrylic paint
9 x 5.5 x 5.5


Tom Eckert uses traditional carving and construction processes to create trompe l’oeil painted sculptures which explore how cloth can create a sense of mystery or religious awe. Cumulus Cover plays on the notion of the “cloud cover” – the portion of the sky obscured from our view by clouds – and cloth coverings.  Boundaries between foreground and background, reality and illusion, seeing and perception, and painting and sculpture are all challenged, as Eckert suggests that spaces of ambiguity can generate a powerfully held sense of wonder.  Michael Bauermeister’s “Negative Space” uses ornamentation to play diverse materials against each other, creating both an equivalency and a conversation.  The upper portion of the work is composed of the negative shapes from the lower, repurposed and reunited across a central divide.  Binh Pho’s “Tears” explores the notion of crossed boundaries within the context of narrative.  Inspired by the lives of the Chinese Emperor’s wives from the Ming to Qing dynasties, separated from their families and communities and often kept far from the Emperor himself, Pho imagines the escape of the soul in the guise of butterflies, breaking the boundaries of everyday existence. 


David Ellsworth
Line Ascending #2
black ash burl, paint
61 x 13 x 10.5

In the 1970s, David Ellsworth began using a “blind turning” technique in which the shape of the wood vessel served as an exterior boundary against which interior space was created. Moving away from symmetrical circular forms – such as the clean “Pine Pot” featured in Is Ornament a Crime? – and towards the vertical and linear, the works in Ellsworth’s “Emergence” series soar into space without such certainties. “Line Ascending #2” is assembled like the telescopic aluminum camping cup used by the Boy Scouts. The height and shape of the piece are determined as the artist works, necessitating a “a strong measure of risk at every step in their making.” 1

Other artists included in Beyond Boundaries may also be familiar names, but this showing marks their first incorporation into a CWA exhibition.  Wendy Maruyama is best known for her smart and affecting studio furniture.  However, “Ghost” shies away from joinery, turning, and carving in favor of construction methods that more closely resemble those used for textiles.  The resulting flexible, pieced surface, stained white, resembles the face of an elephant.  It speaks to the fragility of a species endangered by illegal poaching and other environmental encroachments, while looking to the power of large-scale installation to make the point that much clearer.  Also using textile techniques are Malcolm Martin and Gaynor Dowling.  Their “Still Life Bend” is comprised of a pair of flattened vessels seen in tandem, in which the doubling creates a sense of depth that expands the space of each individual work.  Created using techniques explored during the pair’s 2013 residency at The Center for Art in Wood in Philadelphia, “Still Life Bend” rejects beautiful woods in favor of commercial veneer board.  This is flexibly bent, then carved to allude to natural graining and stitched with silk thread using a decorative patterning typically found in traditional Japanese bookbinding.  Both Maruyama and Martin and Dowling ask us to reconsider the boundaries between fiber and wood art. 

Gaynor Dowling and Malcolm Martin
Still Life Bend, 2014
cherry and birch ply, silk
2 elements: 38 x 23 x 8 and 30 x 20 x 6


Selected artists included in the exhibition are promising recent additions to the larger field of artists working with wood.  Michaela Stone’s “Anonym-Enemy” is at once sculpture and costume, intended to obliterate the boundaries between the pedestal, wall, and body.  Katie Hudnall’s “A Half Month’s Worth” is an example of “upcycling,” in which recycled materials or objects are re-purposed into an original work of art.  Considering both the present and past lives of woods Hudnall uses means finding beauty not just in the material itself, but her ability to make history new and to confuse boundaries between the precious and the worthless.  Although not a new addition to the field, Gord Peteran’s work also traffics in the power of the repurposed.  His “Table Made of Furniture” is precisely what it sounds like: a demi-lune table is composed solely from elements of wooden tables, chairs, and other furniture.  It is assembled into an unexpected whole using beautifully rendered woodworking techniques including mortise and tenon joints and dovetails, asking where the boundaries between furniture and sculpture begin and end. 

Technology is amply utilized by the artists featured in Beyond Boundaries.  The long history of artistic innovation in craft practice is heavily dependent on expanding the possibilities of a material through tools which may soon come to seem “natural,” like the lathe or the chisel. Often both old and new technologies are used - often in combination - for the exploration of contemporary ideas.  Beston Barnett’s desktop assemblage “Arab Spring #2” utilizes a combination of new and old technologies to create a work that addresses the international political climate.  Drawers are marked with relief patterns cut using a CNC (Computer Numerical Control) router and suspended within an open, hand-worked frame, allowing for a wraparound surface marked with abstracted Arabic calligraphy.  This is a deliberate nod to historic Islamic architecture (including the cubic Kaaba in Mecca) and current conversations in and about the Middle East. 


Michaela Stone
Anonym-enemy, 2013
turned maple
32 x 32 x 10

 “Mountains,” by Jérôme Blanc, plays with the idea of both geographical and technological boundaries, and their potential disruption.  Blanc’s native Switzerland is set through with inherent boundaries - his titular mountains - which create divides between peoples.  Blanc stylizes these geographic boundary lines through digital drawings and then carves them with a laser into the surface of a lathe-turned walnut vessel, asking us to reconsider the permanence of such borders.  What happens when we pick the work up, turn it over, and look at it from new angles?  As Blanc notes, “Boundaries move according to our perception.” 2

Blanc’s statement seems an apt point on which to close this introduction to Beyond Boundaries.  Our perception and perspective of what our limitations are and how they operate are not static, but instead a moving target.  Are we perhaps best served thinking of history as a narrative anchored in boundary pushing which has paved the way for an interdisciplinary present?  Does the diversity of works on display suggest that assumed boundaries for the aesthetic and technical possibilities of art in wood have truly dissolved?  Conversation and debate about supposed boundaries are key as we engage the limitations - or lack thereof - which guide today’s wood artists. 


1 David Ellsworth, “Object Description,” submission for Wood Art for the 21st Century, 2014.
2 Jerome Blanc, “Object Description,” submission for Wood Art for the 21st Century, 2014.


Emily Zilber is the Ronald C. and Anita L. Wornick Curator of Contemporary Decorative Arts at The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.  Published in conjunction with the SOFA CHICAGO 2014 Special Exhibit Beyond Boundaries: Wood Art for the 21st Century presented by Collectors of Wood Art and curated by Emily Zilber.

Featured artists include: Michael Bauermeister, Derek Bencomo, John Beaver, Beston Barnett, Jerome Blanc, Michael Brolly, Andy DiPietro, Tom Eckert, David Ellsworth, Katie Hudnall, David Knopp, Bud Latven, Tally Locke, Alain Mailland, Malcolm Martin and Gaynor Dowling, Wendy Maruyama, Bart Niswonger, Pascal Oudet, Gord Peteran, Hilary Pfeifer, Binh Pho, Norm Sartorius, Michael Scarborough, Michaela Stone, and Kimberly Winkle.

Copyright © Sculpture Objects Functional Art and Design 2018. All Rights Reserved.
Produced by Urban Expositions, a Clarion Events Company | Privacy