The Hank Gilpin show at Gallery NAGA in Boston (Oct 9 to Nov 7) demonstrates why he is one of the great furniture makers in the country. It isn't because he excels at the craft. Although his work demonstrates the highest level of woodworking skill, there are probably hundreds of other woodworkers in the country with equal skill. It isn't because he excels at design. Although his designs are impeccable, there are probably dozens of woodworkers whose imagination leads to work that is as unique, functional, and elegant. What sets Hank's work apart from his peers is his uncanny ability to find and use lumber that no one else is even considering. Piece after piece, the show highlights breathtaking beauty in design, execution, and wood selection.
The most surprising piece in the show is this tulip poplar table made with a blistered poplar top. The design is intentionally understated because the top says it all. I've never heard of such a thing and doubt that I would ever be able to find a board like this if I tried. He has a story that goes with each of the pieces on how he came across the wood. Taken individually, you would think he was just lucky, but as a whole you come to understand that luck has nothing to do with it - he has developed a sixth sense, like a blood hound on the scent its quarry, Hank has a nose for rare and stunningly beautiful wood.
Blistering/quilting effects are more commonly known, though still very rare, in maple; but this big leaf maple table is both exceptional and interesting because you can see the curl throughout the width of the board, in both the dark heartwood and the light sapwood, but the blistering is only found in the heartwood.
And, although I'd be happy to just spend my time looking at the top, if you look at the underlying structure (image taken from the gallery website) you see finely made furniture with equally beautiful wood.
Below is another interesting piece, entitled Curiously Red, made for the "Inspired by China" furniture show that traveled to a number of museums recently. With it, Hank uses elm (another rarely used species) to create a blood red altar with stain dripping over the very bottom. The naturally warped quarter inch top makes what would otherwise be functional furniture into sculpture that is evocative of something sacred. It isn't made to play a supporting role in a room, to hold a vase of flowers or a picture frame, but, rather, to be the subject, left alone and admired for its form.
I can go on and on about the numerous pieces of furniture in the show. Each is worthy of discussion, but what I really enjoyed about the show, and what I found the most surprising, were his wonderful wood sculptures. They range from small playful pieces to large statements of the "wood is art" aesthetic. I hadn't been aware that Hank made non-functional pieces but was told that he has been making the small pieces for a number of years as a way to have something affordable for people that would stop by his studio when it is open to the public. And affordable they are. The economy may stink, but the public still knows a deal when they see one and they will swam when they appear. As indicated by the red dots on this list of small sculptures, these pieces are a deal. For as little as $250 you can walk away with a Hank Gilpin masterpiece.
One of my favorites is the elegantly carved Theater made with blistered maple. It is hard to tell from the image but there is no joinery, it is carved from a single block of wood.Again, with this rosewood piece, Sushi?, there is no joinery.Hank doesn't like to use tropical woods - North American forests are full of the most beautiful lumber in the world so why bother - but if a client requires it, and especially if they supply him with the wood - like they did with this pink ivory used for Float (a scrap was left over) - he'll use it. (the wood is extremely rare and has a natural red/pink tone; it comes from southern Africa)
I love his use of this book-matched crotch/curly ash in this piece Flamin' Ash. He plays with the figure in a very natural way, it both makes sense and is captivating - like a flame, and where the hell do you find a 6 in thick board of curly ash anyway? Another masterful find.
With my bias toward wood art that really celebrates the wood as art, I have to say that the best work of the show are his large wall pieces. My favorite is this warped sheet of walnut (~1/4" thick), entitled Wood Moves. His appreciation for its natural beauty led him to let the wood speak for itself. It is perfect as it is but don't let the simplicity fool you; cleaning up and mounting this thin warped sheet of wood took expert craftsmanship as well as a keen sense of design.
And then there are these huge apple wood flitches, titled Wall Unit. It is extremely rare to find a solid board of apple this large, typically, large apple trees are hollow. Again, he demonstrates exceptional craftsmanship but also the sound judgment to minimize his involvement. He isn't imposing his will on the wood, but rather, finding the best way to let the wood speak for itself.
Finally, there is this amazing piece, Twisted Crotches, made with crotch white oak. He modestly and, somewhat apologetically, said that he created it by just letting the greenwood warp on its own, but the truth is it takes a lot of work and skill to clean-up rough-sawn warped boards, getting the lines straight and even, making the surfaces consistent thickness, and then mounting them. It also took great aesthetic sense, and courage, to take such prime lumber and dedicating it for a non-functional piece that would have uncertain form and impact. It shouldn't be surprising that Hank is such an accomplished sculptor given that he has been making functional sculpture for almost forty years, but it is surprising that he hasn't been more active in creating and promoting it. I'm sure he is very busy keeping his furniture clients happy, and sculpture has a less certain financial pay-off, but the art world needs more artists that are as concerned with their craft as they are with design. Gallery NAGA had been begging him for a solo show for two decades. Hopefully, he'll schedule his next show much more quickly and he'll continue to expand upon his wood sculpture portfolio.