2015 Essay | Contemporary Wood Art & The Shock of the Timeless

2015 Essay | Contemporary Wood Art & The Shock of the Timeless

Contemporary Wood Art & The Shock of the Timeless

By Kevin Wallace

  Robyn Horn 
Dovetail Wedge
redwood, acrylic paint, charcoal
20 x 14 x 7
Blue Spiral 1

All art is contemporary art, in the period of time it is created, documenting humanity through available materials and technologies. In today’s world it is a construct, created by dealers, auction houses and artist-intellectuals, and policed by historians and curators. To view it expansively, it is important to note that among indigenous people there was no word for "art" – as the markings and objects were part of life, whether functional or ceremonial. Yet, if an ancient or indigenous work is exhibited in the modern world, it is indeed a work of art, as it is all a matter of context. A discussion of art in wood, whether created by indigenous people, ancient civilizations or artists working today, means exploring how this context was born of an expansive history. 

Humans have an innate love of wood, having evolved alongside trees. Wherever trees were found, there was shelter and the ability to prepare food. We could travel over water in vessels, and create the locks and docks they required. Land could be traversed by wagons, and bridges allowed passage over waterways. Wood proved the ideal material for creating civilization, as a building material for houses and other structures. It allowed us to work with other materials including clay, metal, and glass, and ultimately made all manner of mechanisms and machinery possible. 

Myths about trees permeate all cultures, and most describe trees as the place where spirits choose to dwell. From the Bodhi tree of Buddhism to the Tree of Life in the foundational scriptures of Judaism and Christianity, wood is also a material of spiritual importance, found at the very heart of our search for meaning. As a material of such power and workability, humans have utilized wood in ceremony and worship. Indigenous cultures carved deities, masks, and staves, as well as the bowls and containers that bridged the sacred and everyday life. Wood also provided the material for the development of music, from the drums and percussive instruments of tribal cultures, to flutes and stringed instruments of the Western world.

Binh Pho and Joey Richardson 
On the Edge of Blue
box elder, sycamore, cast glass,
acrylic paint

12.5 x 7
Thomas R. Riley Galleries
If wood was sacred to indigenous woodworkers, it was no more sacred than the pigments that nature offered to decorate it or other materials from nature that might be combined with it. Everything spoke of the spirit realm and, while it is difficult for us to imagine such a world-view today, the influence of indigenous work – from primitivism and the primal gesture, through a romanticized view of the natural world – remains vital to self-expression in wood. Our appreciation of the material itself – the look of grain, the feel of a wood surface, even the smell of wood – led to a natural revolution in the arts.

The contemporary wood art featured in this special exhibit at SOFA CHICAGO is born of an array of art movements and craft traditions, most notably the contemporary craft movement that took place over the last half of the 20th century. The true roots are to be found in the Arts & Crafts Movement, which flourished as the 20th century began, providing a philosophical basis for a new approach to life and work. Concerned with the decline of rural handicrafts and traditional skills and creativity, which accompanied the rise of industry, the movement advocated truth to materials and traditional craftsmanship. The Arts & Crafts Movement's qualities of simplicity and honest use of materials inspired movements including Art Nouveau, the Dutch De Stijl group, the Vienna Secession, the Bauhaus, and Japan’s Mingei movement. 

Utilitarian work has been designed and created by woodworkers for centuries and, prior to the rise of the contemporary craft movement, distinctions regarding art, craft, and design were not as rigid as they are today. An exhibition of work by James Prestini at the Museum of Modern Art in 1949 included wood bowls alongside organic forms and geometric works. For Prestini, design, like architecture, was equal in stature to painting and sculpture. In contrast, Bob Stocksdale, who exhibited wood bowls at the World’s Fair in 1958, was known to scoff at woodturners who thought of themselves as artists. Stocksdale, and many others who turned wood bowls, created furniture, or carved utilitarian ware, saw the life of a craftsman as an honorable and worthy pursuit, free of the pretension found in the art world.

By the early 1970s, the back-to-the-land movement was in full swing, resulting in a new breed of art fair, where craftspeople took to the streets, selling works in wood, leather, clay, and fiber, harkening back to a tribal sense of community. Influential artists, critics, curators, and dealers, saw a great divide between “contemporary art” and the burgeoning crafts field. Marcel Duchamp, arguably the most important artist of the 20th century, had redefined art, with concept taking priority over creation. Dadaists, Abstract Expressionists and art critics had further challenged the history of carefully crafted paintings and objects. Largely alienated from the art world, a quiet revolution took place, with the fields of glass, ceramic, fiber and wood experiencing tremendous growth. Just as the Arts & Crafts Movement coalesced through a rejection of industry, artists and collectors in the contemporary craft movement rejected mass production and plastic in favor of the natural – which meant that wood should be appreciated for its natural beauty.

Yet, as quickly as this aesthetic asserted itself, so too did a revolution against it. David Ellsworth – who epitomized the woodturner as artist, celebrating nature through a marriage of form and material – said of the times: “The field was rich with a balance between traditional turning and a left-over-from-the-‘60’s attitude of no holds barred, no rock unturned, no unworthy range of experimentation in ideas and idealism that showed no limits and no bounds.” His friend and contemporary Giles Gilson, more than any other artist in the woodturning field, embraced a philosophy of shocking purists by transcending limits and pushing at boundaries, leaving him ostracized by collectors as well as many fellow artists. While struggling to survive as an artist and supporting himself largely through work during the last hurrah of industrial design, Gilson opened doors for those who followed. His work alienated the collectors who came into the field through the contemporary craft movement, as he wrote his own rulebook – one that allowed painting over the wood and combining it with other materials, ranging from metal to “new materials” such as Corian.

While woodturners tended to nod in the direction of tradition in exploring vessel forms, Gilson also explored pure sculpture, sharing the backlash for these explorations with his friend and contemporary Mark Lindquist and those who appeared on the scene soon after, including Stoney Lamar, Todd Hoyer and Robyn Horn. These artists looked to the traditions of Modernist sculptors rather than the history of utility. While the majority of collectors and curators in the woodturning field championed vessel forms that showcased the natural beauty of the wood, these artists linked the realms of craft and art by utilizing materials and processes related to one with ideas and aesthetics of the other. What might be considered a purist aesthetic in woodturning remains a vital and inspired approach, embraced by many artists. However, the use of paints, dyes and mixed media in association with wood is more reflective of the expansive history of the medium. There is evidence that ancient arts of India, Greece and other great civilizations utilized color in a bold manner, though time – and a lack of colorfast and archival pigments – leave much of it to our imagination. Egypt is the lone example, with painted and gilded wood art locked in chambers devoid of light and fresh air retaining a sense of how important color and mixed media were to wood art.

Giles Gilson
wood, Corian, acrylic paint, lacquer
11 x 4.5
Thomas R. Riley Galleries 
provenance: Lipton Collection

The artists in this special exhibit build upon the entire history of art, from the indigenous and ancient through utilizing modern technologies to create work that reflects contemporary life. Some have been instrumental in shaping contemporary wood art, while others have used these explorations as a stepping-off point in finding their own voices. Many of them, including Binh Pho, Satoshi Fujimuna, Louise Hibbert and Kristin Levier turn to the natural world, just as both indigenous makers and Arts & Crafts artisans were inspired to do. What unites the artists in this exhibition is the use of color and mixed media approaches that marries our earliest exploration of wood with contemporary art, making clear that who were are in the modern world is very much who we have been from the beginning of human life.



Louise Hibbert 

Polyphylla Box

English sycamore, stainless steel, rubber, copper,

silver, reclaimed 22ct gold, resin and ink

4.75 x 2 x 1.75

Kevin Wallace is the Director of the Beatrice Wood Center for the Arts in Ojai, California. He is contributor to numerous international publications, has authored a number of books on the field of contemporary art and craft and has guest-curated exhibitions for a number of museums and art centers.

Published in conjunction with the SOFA CHICAGO special exhibit Contemporary Wood Art: The Shock of the Timeless presented by the Beatrice Wood Center for the Arts.

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