2016 Essay | Why Wood?
WHY WOOD? Contemporary Practice in a Timeless Material
By Jennifer-Navva Milliken
The practice of woodworking spans millennia of artistic endeavor and parallels the trajectory of human achievement. In the current age, with advancements in materials research and production technology, the options for manipulating matter to create form are broader and more varied than ever before. And yet, wood continues to provide inspiration to emerging generations of makers across a spectrum of creative practices, even as the conservation of our treasured natural resources intensifies. Among them, artists continue to turn to wood, exploring the properties of this rarefying substance. Through contemporary works that push the boundaries of the material and mine its properties for inspiration, we encounter the eternal qualities of wood that perpetuate dialogues between maker and material.
WHY WOOD? Contemporary Practice in a Timeless Material, presented in 2016 under the aegis of Collectors of Wood Art in conjunction with SOFA CHICAGO, displays new works by 27 artists that represent the richness and diversity offered by artistic engagement in the material of wood. Whether motivated by the material’s physicality or its documentary properties, subverting or mining the traditions of heritage woodworking, or responding to the challenges of process and manipulation, the artists whose works comprise this exhibition straddle ancient and contemporary practices. Though their approaches are wide in scope, they share a passion for grain and suppleness; an appreciation for indigeneity; and a concern for sustainability.
Why wood, indeed. The material allows us to draw a line around the world, connecting disparate cultures and epochs with the globalized present. The ancient Egyptians, whose acacias, palms, and sycamores served prosaic uses but proved inadequate for the demands of the kingdom’s stores of treasures and massive fleets, ordered shipments of cedar from Lebanon and ebony from sub-Saharan east Africa, launching an international market for timber. The Hebrews, divinely commanded to build a holy ark for their most revered object, followed a divine prescription of cedar and hammered gold, a material translation of the temporal and living combined with the sublime and inert. In the Rheinland of the Late-Medieval period, an anonymous woodworker carved and painted the Röttgen Pietà with Gothic features that accentuated the depiction of a mother’s grief for her martyred son; while the Northwest Coastal tribes built complex societies around their abundant resources of cedar, including garments, furnishings, buildings, textiles, monuments, and diets. Constantin Brancusi’s work demonstrated a predilection for a material that would allow him to determine a form through craft-based “collaboration” with it, while Alvar Aalto was moved to exploit the potential of the fibrous composition of wood and its capacity for response when subjected to processes such as bending and lamination. Donald Judd hand-built wood furniture that expressed the Minimalist occupation with quotidian objects and the planar relationships between forms, steering sculpture away from “classical” materials such as bronze and marble. Durable, flexible, abundant, and undergoing transmutation even after the tree is felled, wood has served material culture across all measure of scale, utility, and inspiration, from the beginning of human engagement in the service of tool, fuel, weapon, or talisman. From forest to workshop, wood represents earliest facility with the transformation of a raw material into a masterfully crafted object. In the current age, with an abundance of natural and synthetic materials at our disposal, artists and industrialists are still drawn to the byproducts of this complex, regenerative arboreal system—from roots to leaves, heartwood to bark.
The interrogative approach invited by WHY WOOD? Contemporary Practice in a Timeless Material offers an opportunity to view artistic occupation with wood in the here and now in a set of contexts: by regarding it in line with past traditions, processes, and uses, and—with the understanding that artists will always turn to materials and their concomitant histories for inspiration—by projecting possibilities for future engagements with the material, especially in consideration of the uncertain future of the planet’s natural resources.
As in the past, in this iteration emerging artists appear alongside artists familiar to previous editions of the CWA series for SOFA CHICAGO, including 2012’s Beyond Boundaries: Wood Art for the 21st Century (curated by Emily Zilber, Ronald C. and Anita L. Wornick Curator of Contemporary Decorative Arts, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston); 2010’s 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 2008’s 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).
WHY WOOD? offers a selection of work by contemporary artists who align themselves with the rich trajectory of creative woodworking practice and challenges these artists to consider their commitment to wood within the scope of contemporary problems and challenges presented by the material.
The physical and material qualities of wood—grain and burl, hardwood and softwood— provide an essential launch point for many artists. Among them, is David Ellsworth, who is led by the particular piece of wood at hand and the practices that shape it, to create telescopic towers that reach upward precariously, their eloquent but uncertain gestures echoing the risk and skill that converge in the course of the artist’s process. The work of Michael Peterson is an exercise in patience, as singular pieces of wood are deliberately accumulated, subjected to various techniques, and grouped in harmonious compositions so organic that they seem to have been composed by nature, rather than by the artist’s hand. Derek Bencomo’s sculptural forms demonstrate a similar respect for the natural qualities of wood; the natural grain of the wood converses with the three-dimensional balance of form and movement.
Miriam Carpenter’s finely rendered, scale carvings of feathers are influenced by the delicate fibers present in earlywood, which offer a warp and weft of compact growth rings and dense medullary rays. Similarly, Pascal Oudet draws out the delicacy of wood fiber by sandblasting it to create ethereal traces of the material that whisper, rather than declare, its history.
John Beaver, Jerome Blanc, and Helga Winter apply highly saturated pigments to their wood forms that articulate the distinct qualities of the material’s physicality, rather than obscuring them; while Humaira Abid, Tom Eckert, Kristin LeVier, Binh Pho, and Kimberly Winkle use paint to emphasize the narrative content of their sculpted objects. The detailed scenes that play out across Pho’s delicate arabesques, and the penetrating imagery that gives urgency to Abid’s representational carvings, represent a convergence of two- and three-dimensional practices to convey complex ideas through meticulous workmanship.
It is fitting that a material whose very cell structures serve as records of time and place, would inspire reflections on these documentary qualities. Norm Sartorius remains mindful of the people and stories that comprise the provenance of each piece of wood—from tree to salvaged scrap—while Michael Brolly responds to the longevity of the craft of woodworking, deriving inspiration from the opportunity to create something new within a tradition that is so venerable.
In their work, Eleanor Richards and Tom Shields source quotidian objects that populate our everyday lives and modify them in surprising ways that subvert the consumer approach to wooden objects of use while honoring the material in which they were hewn. Katie Hudnall’s physically realized sketches of furniture comprising discordant, recovered pieces of discarded wood defy traditional woodworking preoccupations with joinery and finish; her pieces are meditations on the instability of contemporary institutions and the dubious structures on which society relies. This anxiety is parried by the work of David Knopp, whose carved furniture in stack-laminated plywood restores a sense of the grain in wood that, though industrially processed, is no less conscious of the environmental impact of wood-related trades.
I have visited the studios of artists working in wood; among the planes, saws, chisels, and sanders, are the slabs of wood, stacked and catalogued in loving and rigorous order. Invariably, I am led through the histories, provenances, pathogens, famines, and battle scars of each carefully collected piece; the pitfalls of working with different types is explained in detail; and the beauty of a particular grain or depth of a burl is exalted. The power of wood over artists who seek out its beauty, idiosyncrasies, and stories defies quantification. Despite thousands of years of practice in this timeless material, it is clear that its potential has not been tapped. Here, in the present exhibition, the question “Why wood?”—asked and answered—not only demonstrates the creative rigor and continued relevance of this generous natural substance for all facets of human existence, but also beckons coming generations of artists to this inquiry.
Jennifer-Navva Milliken is Curator of Craft, Bellevue Arts Museum, Bellevue, WA. Published in conjunction with the Special Exhibit Why Wood? Contemporary Practice in a Timeless Material presented by the Collectors of Wood Art.