Thursday, August 11, 2011

Furniture Divas @ Fuller Craft Museum

I recently visited the Fuller Craft Museum in Brockton, MA to see their Furniture Divas show (on view until October 30, 2011) that was curated my Meredyth Hyatt Moses. I was excited to see the show because it includes a number of my favorite artists and I knew it would also introduce me to great artists that I didn't already know about.

In reviewing this show, I know I'm leaving out a lot of great pieces by great artists but I have focused the discussion on a few pieces that really caught my attention, for purely subjective and often inexplicable reasons. The full list of exhibit artists includes:

Vivian Beer
Polly Cassel
Gail Fredell
Jenna Goldberg
Babara Holmes
Kristina Madsen
Sarah Martin
Wendy Maruyama
Judy Kensley McKie
Alison McLennan
Sylvia Rosenthal
Rosanne Somerson
Wendy Stayman
Leah Woods
Yoko Zeltserman-Miyaji

Although I'm not rating the pieces, if I were to select a favorite it would be this untitled reclaimed lath piece by Barbara Holmes -- not just because of my own personal bias toward non-functionality and cheapness of material, but mostly because of the pure joy and celebratory nature of the upward spirals. One of the nice things about the design is that it is a very organic, it doesn't follow a predictable pattern which makes it look alive as if it is climbing the wall right in front of your eyes.

reclaimed lath
Barbara Holmes

As I turned the corner into this room and looked to my right, my first thought was "What fun!" It was truly a very pleasant and unexpected surprise.
Untitled (closeup)

Also in the category of non-functionality this piece by Sylvie Rosenthal, Hope by Hope. I think it is safe to assume its title is a reference to hope chests, which I know nothing about other than what I've glanced at on this Wikipedia page. What I find most interesting about Sylvie's work is that it is pure sculpture that references furniture -- these "chests" don't open and they don't have bottoms. They seem to be calling for letters or notes (of hopes or wishes?) to be dropped into them but they aren't designed to hold anything physical so it really becomes more of a conceptual piece that asks for wishes, desires, or hopes in the form of thoughts. As such, I think it is really a meditative piece, which I believe is more valuable than something that holds stuff anyway.
Hope by Hope
Sylvie Rosenthal

Additionally, in this closeup you can see how well crafted it is. The laths are made with mahogany and I particularly like their random widths, which makes the piece much more interesting. I think the birds are carved into the wood and I feel their presence plays well with the theme of the piece, perhaps in how fleeting and fragile hopes are, that they can easily spooked and fly away at any moment, never to be seen again.
Hope by Hope (closeup)

Another great piece that only has functionality in a theoretical sense (I don't think anyone would ever use it to hold anything) is Wendy Maruyama's A Question of Loyalty. It is made as part of her E.O. 9066 Series (which I mentioned in an earlier post here, in summary, the work references Executive Order 9066 which led to the interment of Japanese-Americans during World War II).

A Question of Loyalty
Wendy Maruyama
The text on the sliding door reads:

Question 27: "Are you willing to serve in the armed forces of the United States on combat duty whenever ordered?"

Question 28: "Will you swear unqualified allegiance to the United States and faithfully defend the United States from any and all attack by foreign or domestic forces, and foreswear any form of allegiance or obedience to the Japanese emperor, or any other foreign government, power, or organization?"

With the door opened in one direction the answer is "Yes" but slid in the other, the answer in "No." Consequently, the viewer becomes a participant in the questionnaire that I assume Japanese-Americans must have had to respond to prior to their own internment.
A Question of Loyalty ("No" alignment)

Aside from the interesting conceptional aspect of the piece, from a design standpoint, I like the wormy ash that adds a lot of (perhaps metaphorical) character to it. It was made with "Tenafly white ash" which was a very old and esteemed ash tree from Tenafly, New Jersey that has found new life through the work of seventeen world renown artists (read the history and list of artists here). The organization tasked with preserving the tree through its second life as art, and the loaner of the piece to the show, is the Children's Tree and Art Foundation.
A Question of Loyalty (closeup)

Another sculptural piece with tangential functionality is Sarah Martin's Upward Mobility. In reading her discussion of this piece on her website, I learned that it was inspired by a record number of 17-year cicadas in the mountains of North Carolina while she was teaching at Penland School of Crafts.

Upward Mobility
Sarah Martin

I was told by museum curator Perry Price, that each of the draws was a different size, fitting only in one opening, which I found interesting because in looking at the piece I wouldn't necessarily think that they were different. It is always interesting to learn about little things that artists do that only they know or care about. She could have saved a lot of time setting up her cuts to do them all the same and nobody would have known any better or have thought any less of her work, but instead, she took the time to make the draws and openings individually. It is a small but significant indication of an artists devotion to the piece and her craft.

Upward Mobility (closeup)

In addition, I'm impressed with her meticulous sculpting of all these bugs. They look almost as if she had somehow preserved the cicadas and just improved their appearance with gold and stone accessories.

Upward Mobility (closeup)

For functional pieces in the show, I was really drawn to, Gail Fredell's Bricklayer's Quartet. One reason being the fascinating slab of bog oak (a sub-fossilized tree 3,500 to 7,000 years old that was recovered from a bog in England) she used for the table top. I was also captivated by the inventive way she presents it, letting it float and be as natural as possible.

Bricklayer's Quartet
Gail Fredell

It is also interesting how the bog oak's color is natural, no need to use any messy or time consuming fuming technique -- just stick a log in the ground an wait a few thousand years -- Gustav Stickley should have thought it, the result is a much richer color.

Bricklayers Quartet (closeup)

It is a little hard to see in this image but another aspect of the piece worth noting is the inventive way she stabilized the crack on the far end of the table with a steel bar underneath. A far more common method is to use a butterfly dovetail key that would span the crack, but her method leaves the crack completely natural, in all its beautiful imperfection.

Bricklayers Quartet (closeup)

I was also fascinated with this cut at the end of the board with the two small 90 degree angles. I couldn't figure out how she did it but the curator suggested, and I think he is right, that she removed a small section, perhaps rot or a large defect, and placed the section back together. Still, the shape of the cut is mysterious and intriguing, mostly because of the high level of craft she used to do it.

Bricklayers Quartet (closeup)

Another functional piece that captivated my attention is Kristina Madsen's Painted Chest. The first thing that drew my attention is its slightly diminutive presence, which I don't think translates in an image. It isn't small, but it isn't as large as you would expect it to be either. It somehow takes a scale that is unexpected, and in that way, calls attention to itself.

Painted Chest
Kristina Madsen

It is also difficult to tell from the image but Kristina has intricately carved thin lines wherever you see white on this piece, the brownish yellow is milk paint. I find it interesting that she used maple for the case rather than basswood, which most people use for carving because it cuts easy and doesn't tend to tear-out. I'd be interested to know why she chose maple, perhaps because it is harder, and therefore more durable, than basswood but I wonder if it also allowed her to create thinner ridges between the grooves.

Painted Chest (closeup)

In this final image you can see the inside of the chest is lined with silk fabric but you can also get a better view of the fine carving on the outside.

Painted Chest (inside)
It is no secret that furniture making has historically been a very male dominated profession. In retrospect, it is almost hard to believe how, until very recently, exclusively male it was. In fact, I can't think of another prominent female furniture maker prior to Judy Kensley McKie's first museum shows in 1979. I even remember seeing a video of Sam Maloof embarrassingly recounting a story about how, when he first had women ask to apprentice with him (I think in the early 70's), that he had to turn them away because his employees refused to work with them. I know there were women who designed furniture earlier, such as Ray Eames and Charlotte Perriand, but women seemed to be excluded from the shop floor (it makes me think that there may be a good PhD dissertation in researching women in woodworking from earlier eras). As a result, one of the important aspects of this show is in demonstrating how unremarkable gender in the field has become. In just thirty years, women have gone from no recognition to, from what I can tell, equality (and please let me know if I'm wrong). In contrast, it is interesting to hear women in the fine art world still fighting for equality in museum collections and blue chip galleries (Joanne Mattera's Art Blog, among others, often raises the issue) but when I look at gallery and museum exhibits of furniture makers and woodworkers, women are always well represented. More than highlighting gender in the furniture world, this show seems to simply be a celebration that there are so many great female furniture makers working today that their gender is no longer relevant.

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