Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Belated Praise

Back in September, during the Burlington Art Hop, I came across these two great wood sculptures by Waterbury (Vermont) artist, Nori Morimoto, Volcano, made with bird's-eye maple and Wave, made with ash.
bird's-eye maple
With Volcano, he has created a landscape that is both natural looking and other-worldly. It reminds me of a moonscape or perhaps the surface of a distant planet. Bird's-eye maple was a good choice for this type of sculpture because the "eye's" really stand out, adding extra texture to the surface. I'm sure he sandblasted the surface to get the effect and, based on a similar piece on his website, I believe he ebonized the left side by burning it. The quality of the bird's-eye maple is exceptional. Any woodworker would have loved to have gotten a hold of it, so it is great that it wasn't turned into a boring piece of furniture.
Volcano (close-up)
I find Wave to be aesthetically interesting and technically confusing. I love the contrast between the light/dark and the waves/blocks; the randomness of how it alternates between waves, blocks, straight lines, and gaps;

that there are enough gaps on the right side to see the wood grain underneath; and the lack of fastidiousness, that imperfections are part of the art.
Wave (close-up front)
But what I guess I find most interesting is mystery of how he created the waves. I have one idea but I don't really think it would work and I'm torn between wanting to know and thinking it would be better to just be mystified.
Wave (close-up right)

Monday, December 13, 2010

Upstairs At The Renwick Gallery

Upstairs at the Renwick Gallery there is always more great work on view (which I visited after viewing A Revolution In Wood), some rotating, some on permanent display. My favorite of the permanent work is Wendell Castle's Ghost Clock (1985). The label says they acquired it in 1989 but the first time I noticed it was in the mid-90's (maybe '96 or '97?). It was placed between a couple of display rooms in a foyer-like space so it was particularly difficult to recognize as art. The only reason I noticed it was because the guard called me back after I past and told me to take a closer look at the label, which read simply, "bleached and stained mahogany." Still in disbelief at what I was seeing, he told me to look behind it (being placed in the center of the room, I was able to do this) and up from underneath to see a spot where the "sheet" and "clock" are connected. It has since been moved to a more recognizably art location, probably because the guard got tired of calling people back to take a closer look, and it now has its back to the wall so you can't get behind it, thus you'll have to take my word that there is a tiny spot (and only one tiny spot that you need to get on your hands and knees to see) where the deception is revealed. Update November 21, 2011: I was at the Renwick a couple of weeks ago and noticed it has since been moved back to the center of a room, so you can now inspect the entire piece to your hearts content.
The perfectly carved wrinkles, puckers, and dimples make it particularly deceptive. In addition, on past viewings I've felt that he somehow was able to sculpt the weave of the thread into the wood but on this last visit I finally realized that the open grain nature of mahogany creates the effect of giving it a thread count.
Also upstairs, as part of their rotating exhibit, was this piece by Christian Burchard, Basket Series (1997), made with madrone. He likes to collaborate with nature in creating his sculptures and these are a good example. It looks like he charred them to get a black interior. The brown exterior and the naturally warped surface gives them the look of leather and help the viewer to recognize that these objects came from a living thing.

It was interesting to see that Christian's piece was donated by John and Robyn Horn and across the room was this piece, Slashed Millstone (1996) made by Robyn Horn. She is in an elite group of collectors that are also great artists. I find her work interesting in a number of ways but in particular I like how she uses wood to create sculptures of stone. It is a little humorous really, but it also makes sense, you can't really make a sculpture of stone in stone without it being the object rather than the sculpture of the object, and other media (clay, metal, glass) would look too contrived or artificial. Wood, on the other hand, provides its own natural irregularities that mimic metamorphosed sediment. This piece is made with ebonized redwood burl.
It was also good to see Binh Pho's work. This piece, Journey to Destiny (2003), is made with oak, maple, gold leaf, acrylic paint, and dye. I saw a show of his work in one of his galleries over the summer and learned that he still works a full-time engineering job, which seems impossible given his level of art production and the intensity of his work. He must not need or want sleep.
And finally, there was this piece by Daniel Essig, Book of Nails II (2003), made with a virtual short story of materials -- mahogany, various metals, hand-made flax paper, velvet, linen thread, mica, trilobite, leather, paint, stains, and epoxy. It caught my eye because it reminds me of Janet Van Fleet's work with its use of nails and books. Too bad the museum has a case over the piece preventing visitors from handling it; the book would be interesting to close to see what it looks like with the nails surrounding the carcass and feeling their hard edges. It is very intriguing, a lot to look at, play with, and think about.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

A Sampling of the Bresler Collection

On a recent trip to Washington, D.C., I stopped into the Smithsonian's Renwick Gallery to see A Revolution in Wood: The Bresler Collection. It is an exhibit of sixty-six world class turned and sculpted wood art pieces generously donated to the Smithsonian by Fleur and Charles Bresler.

This first piece is Table Bracelet (1997) by Michelle Holzapfel is made with birch, maple, cherry, and brass. It was created as part of a series in which she made jewelry for the home and included a seven by eleven foot wall mounted Spiral Necklace. I like both the humor of the concept and the scale. I guess all art can be seen as jewelry for the home but the overtness of this work makes the idea more clear. I also like how it humanizes in animate objects and helps you to see them as worthy of adornment. Why not buy jewelry for a table, or chair, or even a whole building?

David Ellsworth had a few great pieces in the exhibit, including Mo's Delight (1993), a beautiful futuristic spheroidal sculpture made with curly white oak (left) and Sundown Pot (1995), an equally beautiful but more minimalist turning made with curly maple (right).
His radically different piece, Patan (1991), was also in the exhibit. It is a naturally warped vase that has been charred and brightly painted. For what ever reason I expected this piece to be pretty small after having seen an image of it on a recent cover of AmericanStyle magazine, so I was surprised to find it is actually around 18" high.
Here is the backside. Nothing subtle about it and the exhibit text said that it caused a big uproar in the turning community -- a type of "Dylan goes electric" moment. As a lover of Dylan's electric work, I think this was done with equal success. Sometimes people just need to be shaken up a bit and unexpected art is a great way to do it.
This is Stoney Lamar's Self Portrait (1992), made with box elder, a wood that I love for its light color and streaks of pink and red. I don't know Stoney, so shouldn't guess as to how or why this is a self-portrait, but I gather from the piece that he is a little off-center with both rough and refined edges.
Edward Moulthrop's maple Donut Bowl (1990) seems to beg to be touched.
Mike Shuler's Satinwood Bowl #458 (1989) is made with satinwood, bloodwood, amaranth, and finished with a shellac french polish. I'm a little confused as to where or how the amaranth was used in the piece, whether as a seed or the fiber was somehow integrated.
Mark Sfirri's Rejections From The Bat Factory (1996), made with mahogany, cherry, curly maple, zebrawood, cocobolo, and lacewood, also display's a great sense of humor. He uses a multi-axis turning technique to make them. Conceptually, I understand what that means but the result is still magic.
This trompe l'oeil Petrified Sewing Basket (1995) was made with cherry, wenge, and imbuia by Lincoln Seitzman. The piece makes me wonder what drew him to making a basket out of wood or why he thought he could do it. The result is a remarkable "reproduction" of the woven inspiration.
Galen Carpenter made this unique vase, 96-4 (1996), with cristobal and chipboard. It is interesting how he combined a rare and luxurious tropical wood with a very common, inexpensive, construction material to create an unexpectedly elegant piece. The chipboard gives it a painterly effect that seems much closer to a glazed piece of pottery than a wood turning.
Bud Latven's Integration (1992) is made with maple and African blackwood. It is interesting to see one of his early pieces which gives some perspective and hint of the direction he would take in making his absolutely insane current work.
Norm Sartorius is famous for his unusual art spoons and there were four of them in this exhibit. The three that I was able to get good images of are Mutation (1999), made with Mexican blue oak burl (bottom left), Obsession (1998), made with maple (top left); and Spear Spoon (1997), made with African blackwood (right).
I had no idea that there was a whole craft/sculpture sub-genre of art spoons until I read Norm's article on Norman Steven's spoon collection in Forum (July 2010), the Collectors of Wood Art newsletter. It is very much like the craft/sculpture sub-genre of art teapots. In both cases artists use a functional object as a starting point to create objects of beauty that only vaguely reference their conceptual origins. These are endearing small sculptures, allowing something elegant to be created out of small pieces of wood that would likely not otherwise have a use, other than for its BTU value.

The exhibit will be on view until January 30, 2011 and is very much worth the full viewing if you are in the Washington, DC area. However, regardless of when you may be in DC, the Renwick Gallery is always worth a visit. It is my favorite museum and they always have great work rotating through their permanent collection on the second floor. Below is a video made by the Smithsonian to give an overview and background of the collection. The best line is at the beginning when Fleur says that "You get a flutter in your heart, and when you get it you'd better buy the piece because you're gonna dream about it." Yes, don't argue with your response to art, just buy it!

Monday, November 29, 2010

New Works By Judy Kensley McKie In Wood (as well as Bronze and Stone)

Though I try to restrict my arts coverage to wood art, I have what I call the JKM exception, which states, if your initials are JKM I'll discuss what ever you make, regardless of the medium. Coincidentally, Judy Kensley McKie has those very same initials so I was happy that when I came across her show at Gallery NAGA it was full of museum quality work that included wood sculptures as well as bronze and stone.

Of all the work in the show I was most intrigued with her abstract basswood relief because it is so completely different than anything else of her's that I've seen.

Abstract Headboard
carved basswood
40" x 63" x 1 3/4"

Not only does it lack any animal imagery, but there are no smooth, graceful curves. It is full of jagged, sharp edges, almost like shards of glass or metal off-cuts that were thrown on a floor. It is hard to imagine anything more distant from her breathtakingly beautiful and often humorous furniture.

In her conversation with Arthur Dion, the gallery director, reproduced in the catalog, she says that she started drawing it as a mental break, to start thinking about other ways of working, and when she looked at the finished drawing decided that it was interesting enough to reproduce as a relief. I can see how it would be rejuvenating to create the drawing, however, it is also interesting how she took a mental break but then applied the same level of intensity she applies to her other work in realizing it into a final piece. It took her three months of difficult carving to make and she could have easily used that time to create something more typical, with a ready-made market. I guess what I like the most about the piece is how it shows artistic integrity in her willingness to take chances and grow. She hasn't become complacent and content to make things that she knows will sell, rather, she is pushing herself, and her audience, to look at things differently.
Of Judy's more famous biomorphic work, this tiger table is the star of the show. The narrow legs, thin body, and graceful lines give it a delicate and animated feel, while the fierce head provide it a contrasting sense of danger.
Tiger Table
cast bronze
(I had to lift the image from the gallery website because I accidentally deleted my own)

The mouth seems perfectly shaped to fit a forearm, seemingly tempting the viewer to place one there and risk losing it. A perfect balance of beauty, danger, and temptation.
This ram bench has a very pre-Columbian feel. I think of it as a minimalist sculpture in the non-traditional sense, that is, Judy has somehow captured the essence of the ram with the minimal amount of material removed. It is good to see it still retains its original blocky nature, which, remarkably, seems to show respect to both the medium and the subject.
Ram Bench

This dog bench is another of my favorites. Classic JKM work in being both humorous and graceful.
Dog Bites Tail Table/Bench
cast bronze

Along the same lines is this Round Hound Table. It is a form she has played around with before, however, this one seems to have more movement and is more flowing. It makes me think of the Yin/Yang symbol but also reminds me of MC Escher's drawings, perhaps because of the symmetry.

With this Cherry Tree Chest (and I assume with the Abstract Headboard as well) Judy used a dead flat varnish so that the wood wouldn't darken and the grain pattern wouldn't distract from the design. I think it has more of a tropical look than I would expect for something made to represent a temperate forest tree but, as with her other representational pieces, her imagination is more important than the reality of the object.
Cherry Chest
carved basswood with maple casework

And yes, the draws are made with hand-cut dovetails.
There are quite a few snake pieces in the show, including these candle stick holders and bowls.
She says she likes to design with snake because they are just a line, allowing unlimited possibilities. They are also the non-venomous kind, more like garter snakes that are friendly bug eaters.
Snake Bowl (wood)

Snake Bowl
cast in bronze from the one above

I like this Monkey Cabinet and how it seems to borrow from Frank Stella's protractor series and
how this Ibex Cabinet seems to borrow from Van Gogh's technique of outlining figures.
Judy has included two more pieces from her "helping hands" series in the show. They are endearing works in that she is creating pieces that are just looking to be helpful, asking what they could do around the house that might be useful and then assigning themselves some otherwise menial task. In addition to the new vase and candlestick holders, previous shows have included helping hand bookends and a bowl. Although it is overt in these pieces, the same theme runs through most of her work. Her animals seem to be saying, "how can I help you?", "have a seat," "let me hold that for you," servants out of of graciousness rather than servitude.
Helping Hands Vase
cast bronze

Helping Hands Candlesticks
cast bronze

When I visited the show a week after the opening, this Duck Bowl had already sold out (she is selling 8 of her edition-ed work). There is something about the shape of the head and the fact that it is looking back that is captivating. It is elegant but also a little odd, just a little off, slightly confusing, that draws me to look at it longer.
Duck Bowl
cast bronze
The show also includes a series of animal plaques. My favorite are this frog and

this dog. I especially like how she has the tail become part of the border. It is so Egyptian-esque that I had to research what dog hieroglyphs look like and was surprised to find that Egyptian's drew much more realistic looking dogs than I would have imagined. You can find examples here and here. I think this one looks more like a lizard, which makes it more interesting.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

New Influence/Direction

After having seen Frank Stella's Irregular Polygons at Dartmouth's Hood Museum and listening to him talk a few days later, I decided my work would be more interesting if I escaped the tyranny of rectangularity.
Five Randomly Tapered Planks
(Update 2/4/11: I changed the name of this piece to
A Tear of Joy and Profound Admiration)
shellac on curly maple, curly yellow birch,
curly/bird's-eye yellow birch
approx. 47" x 42" x 1"

Having milled these five planks many months earlier, I was having trouble deciding on how to arrange them, but as soon as my mind opened to the idea of adding random angles to the work, it fell together much better. It seems like such a simple idea but it opens up a whole new realm of possibilities. It will be interesting to see where it leads.

Alternate Orientation
approx. 58" x 34" x 1"
In addition to the unique shape of this piece, the middle plank is particularly interesting in that it is made with bird's-eye yellow birch. I had no idea that such a thing existed (and didn't know I had bought it until after I put it through the jointer) but now that I know I'll take extra care to look for it at the lumber mill.

yellow birch bird's-eye closeup

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Moment of Anxiety

There is a moment of anxiety when I place a finished piece on the wall and see it for the first time as it should be shown. I've never known a piece to live up to my expectations as I stand back (perhaps because delusions of grandeur are the only thing that can keep me motivated to finish it) but I at least hope that I'm not disappointed. No matter how I look at a sculpture or painting while I'm working on it, how many times I hang it, arrange the individual pieces or place them together, the final hanging is always different and a surprise.
Five Wedges
(Update 2/4/11: I changed the name of this piece to
Green Chimneys)
shellac on curly maple and cherry
49" x 20" x 4"

With this one I am less disappointed than most, which I have to accept as total success.
I think it is very musical. The colors have a rhythm as you look from the right or left sides, which I wasn't expecting as much as I had planned for the wedge shapes and placement to be rhythmic. Initially, I thought viewing from the right was better, with the yellow on each piece, but now, looking from the left and seeing the red/yellow pattern, I can't choose.
I've been listening to a lot of jazz as I work and would like to think that this sculpture is influenced by Thelonious Monk. I find it amazing how the notes he plays are simultaneously completely wrong and completely perfect. I think my only disappointment in this piece is in not seeing a similar quality, something needed to be more wrong and unexpected but I'm not sure what.
close-up (right)

From the fine art world though, it is influenced by Anne Truitt. After seeing her work on-line, I wanted to play around with making 3-D pieces that were colored differently on each side. I also like how she makes paintings of minimalist 3-D forms. I debated for months whether to make this a wall piece or something for a pedestal but could never think of a good way to display them on a pedestal so I went for the wall.

close-up (left)
I also struggled for months on cutting the wedges. They might look simple but my only hope of cutting the faces with clean lines and without tear-out (because of the intense figure) was to improve my skills with handplanes. Thankfully, Garrett Hack gave a workshop on using hand tools nearby over the summer and the Vermont Arts Council gave me a grant to help pay for it. Dealing with tear-out is the most difficult problem of working with figured lumber so I'm sure my new skills will help me save a lot of time on future work.

Update (Nov. 11, 2010): I have added an image of this piece on a real wall to give a more realistic view of it.