Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Jon Brooks Retrospective @ Currier Museum

Walking into the Currier Museum's Jon Brooks retrospective, A Collaboration With Nature, the first thing you see is this chair; it is a style that has made him famous in the studio furniture world -- light, natural tree-like forms recreated into functional and sculptural objects.
Abijah Crosses the Piscataqoug Dressing Chair
figured walnut, maple, enamel, color pencil
But then you go back in time to the beginning of his career, starting with his work as a student at Rochester Institute of Technology's School for American Crafts where he was a studied under and worked for Wendell Castle. I found the process of looking at the evolution of Jon's art absolutely fascinating. I hadn't been familiar with his early work and was surprised to see how different it was from what I had known of his art.

Starting with these two pieces he made as a student in 1966 all the way up to 1984 there is a definite consistency in how he would make pieces.

Homage to Brancusi
With only a few exceptions, the work was sculpted from a single piece of lumber.
Blue Table
elm and acrylic
Most all of this work also uses as much of the natural form as possible, like this Throne, cut from the base of an undulating and wild pine tree.
Or this chair, carved from a single piece of walnut.
Franklin Chair
And especially this Pacik Chair that still incorporates a stone that lodged between the roots as the tree grew around it.
Pacik Chair
walnut tree root with stone inclusion
In all cases, however, even when he would use multiple pieces of wood and combine multiple species, the work was very heavy. Thick boards, big bases, massive, almost immobile forms.
Full Moon Under Carolina Pine: Penland
Pine, walnut, ebony

Although Jon wasn't using any of the stack laminate technique that Wendell Castle is famous for, the weight and size of his work reminds me of Wendell's and it is hard to believe that as a student and shop assistant of a great and famous studio furniture designer that Jon wasn't influenced by his work, as in this chair that seems to be a reinterpretation of Wendell's Molar Chair.
Greg Mill Elm Chair
But, though I like this work, and he was obviously successful with the style, I don't think it is great.
Coat and Hat Rack
pine and oak
Although each piece is definitely unique, an original design that wouldn't ever be replicated, I don't think the overall technique or style is particularly unique. Although I can't say where or by whom, it feels like I have seen others making similar things.
Connie's Piano Bench
walnut, pine, cherry
While this work pays homage to the nature of trees and forests, their weight is somewhat inelegant. They are spiritual in concept but earth-bound in execution.
Dot and Jay Lamp
Hemlock, walnut, maple
Ironically, one of the last of this part of Jon's career is this ladder, a form that in reoccurring through out his later work but in this incarnation, though it is trying to reach for the heavens, it is weighed down by gravity, dead-ending into a wall.
Pathless Resistance
sugar pine, walnut
But then something really amazing happens. Jon had a few residencies in Australia and New Zealand in 1983 and 1984, and when he returned to New Hampshire his work changed dramatically. One of the earliest examples of this transformation was in these ladder-back chairs. With them, he is still using natural forms of the wood in the pieces but his work suddenly becomes much lighter. It reaches for the heavens in a way that gives a sense of being a path to the spirit world. It isn't vainly reaching upward any more.
Styx Ladder-back Chairs
He also began developing a unique method of joining lumber in both his sculptures and furniture. As with these dog sculptures, he started taking branches or saplings (probably harvested form his forest covered property in New Hampshire) and forming the pieces into natural looking forms re-envisioned into mythical creatures and designs. It is an interesting process because he is able to take scraps from a forest and create art that is both minimal and sturdy. The result is something that looks like it was plucked directly out of the woodlands while being minimally invasive to the ecology of the forest.

Georgia and Alfred
I love the playful polka dots on Georgia and Alfred. I didn't see any other examples of this type of decoration on his other pieces but I think it abstractly captures the nature of the dogs he is sculpting.
Georgia or Alfred (close-up)
Conceptually, the new work is the same as his earlier pieces. They are natural looking forms seemingly cut, as is, from a single tree, but at this point in his career he started creating something absolutely original. Nobody looking at it would ever associate it with any other artist and any other artist who attempted to imitate it would be cursed with being constantly reminded of how it is derivative of Brooks. With this series, Jon was able to create a body of work that is defined by him, like Albers with squares; Serra with steel walls; and Mondrian with anything that is Mondrian-esque.
Dodge Hill Dressing Chair
sugar maple, walnut, acrylic, color pencil, lacquer, oil and varnish
It also seems that his joining and sculpting technique led him to incorporate painting into his art, perhaps as a way to cover the joints and make the piece look like one whole, organic, object. And, by covering the joints with paint, he created a canvas to incorporate dots, scribbles, and symbols to the surfaces which in turn takes the work to another level, beyond furniture and into something that is as much fine art as it is fine craft.
Everglades Cloud Table
maple, curly maple, acrylic, color pencil, lacquer, oil and varnish

Everglades Cloud Table (close-up)
This work is simply exquisite. Some of it is functional, some is purely sculptural, but it is all completely original fine art.
True Loves Blue
curly maple, acrylic, color pencil, lacquer, oil and varnish

True Loves Blue (closeup)

Gallery View of True Loves Blue and two Ranfred Dining Set Chairs (2005)
But what I particularly like about his post 1984 work is how spiritual it is. It seems to come from a different place, that Jon is somehow channeling another world.

Angel Dog Table
maple, walnut, acrylic, color pencil
photo credit: Bill Truslow
I find it just so interesting to see how an artist would suddenly go from good to great because of how he was able to find and incorporate a new influence. I think it is also very instructive in that artists need to look for new experiences and not be content with previous and preconceived concepts.
Citron Altar
(this piece was in the museum show but the photo was taken at Gallery NAGA in 2010)
curly maple, sugar maple, acrylic, stain, varnish, lacquer

Citron Altar (close-up)
In 2010 Jon's work took another change in direction, though not as dramatic as in 1984. As a result of a tragic fire that engulfed his workshop and taking with it all his tools and much of his personal collection (I think I heard that some it had just been finished for this museum show), he seems to have incorporated scarification and burning, as with this new chair, Mouvinon (which looks like it might be a french word but I think is pronounced "Movin' On"), that was finished just as he began the installation of the show.

Quilted maple, maple, black birch, yellow birch, and beech 2011
As with much of his work, this piece has a life of its own. It isn't just a chair, but a character that, in addition to sitting on, you could sit next to and have a conversation with. There is also a definite continuity with his Citron Altar, but Mouvinon has a heavier feel in its texture, color, and the flat-footedness of the legs. I can't imagine how difficult it would be to see that much priceless art, equipment, and personal history taken away; but as with any great artist, he is clearly channeling the experience into his art and using it as inspiration to take his work in new and interesting directions. I am anxious to see how Jon's work continues to evolve because, as tragic as the event was, I'm sure his work will ultimately benefit from it.

Mouvinon (close-up)

Photography Note: I should have contacted the museum ahead of time to get permission to photograph the show because halfway through the guards told me that I couldn't take pictures. I took a couple clandestinely anyway but was only able to get images of much of Jon's later work by having the museum email images to me later (
I noted the photographer of the studio images when I had the information). Even though the professional photographs are great, I still prefer to use my own images because they seem to have more of the information I'm looking for. Oh well, now I know, get a press pass before going to a museum show and avoid paying the entrance fee as well.

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