Thursday, May 3, 2012

Casting Convention Aside: Bart Niswonger @ Gallery NAGA

Having seen Bart Niswonger's work a number of times, I've known he was an innovative furniture maker, but his first solo show at Gallery NAGA is surprising in just how dramatically he has been able to innovate. Bart is clearly the type of artist that can't repeat himself. Though his previous work is good enough that he could spend a lifetime turning out variations of his existing designs, and I wouldn't begrudge him at all for doing it - any reasonable person would, instead he has used his previous work as just a starting point.

In this first piece, he has cast urethane in his trademark carved ash molds for the base, and created an ash top that he also used as a mold for two other pieces in the show. Though not over-powering in scale or design, I consider it, and its sister piece below, two of the most unconventional and innovative pieces of furniture I've ever seen. Conventionally, one would expect a table top to be flat (I don't remember ever seeing one that wasn't -- or at least wasn't supposed to be), but these have obstacles on them, creators that create a risk for someone placing a drink down on them without paying attention, it may spill. Though I have no idea what Bart's intention with this design was, I think the result is brilliant. It forces the user to pay attention to their actions. With these, you can't just blindly proceed through life, out of habit, not knowing what you are doing, rather, you are forced to think and be aware of your surroundings. The result is a mindful piece that I believe the Buddha would be appreciate. Though using them may not lead to enlightenment, I'm sure they can help move the user in that direction. Perhaps the world would be a better place if all tables came with such features. Maybe this will start a movement that Ikea will eventually catch on to -- we can only hope.

Black Side Table
ash, cast urethane, paint
Black Side Table (closeup)
The simple base on this piece along with its understated opaque white top is in complete contrast to the radically unconventional design. 
Coffee Table
ash, cast urethane
In this image you can see that the cast urethane picks up the ash grain pattern perfectly.
Coffee Table (closeup)
Given the pattern of the mounds in this medicine cabinet, I'm pretty certain it was also cast from the first piece. I like how the addition of yellow in the circles creates a complementary color that, along with the circle grain pattern, results in a nice, unique, polka dot effect. 
Medicine Cabinet
ash, cast urethane, paint
Though Bart envisioned it as a medicine cabinet, I noticed on his website that he has a very broad understanding of "medicine" such that I wouldn't be surprised to see it holding Scotch in his own household. 
Medicine Cabinet (inside)
I'm not sure how the Buddha would feel about Bart's Ball Side Table but, aesthetically, it is my favorite piece in the show. I've seen him use this wave pattern (on the carcass) a number of times before but this time he decorated the peaks with random sized spheres, creating a very playful effect. But the really great thing he did with the piece is in casting a urethane (removable) top to provide a beautiful and interesting flat surface.
Ball Side Table
ash, maple, cast urethane, paint
Aside from the obvious aesthetics, the reason I think this piece is so interesting is that he first cast the urethane on ash (you can see the grain pattern below, the imprint is on the underside) then, before the urethane fully hardened, he was able to imprint the spheres into it so that there is a perfect alignment between the two. 
Ball Side Table (closeup)
Remarkably, he was able to maintain the ash grain pattern in the urethane even as it was distorted by the spheres (you can barely see this below).
Ball Side Table (closeup)
In this final piece, Bart appears to have decorated the cabinet with cast flowers, but he actually used winter squash to create the molds.
Red Yellow Cabinet
ash, cherry, cast urethane, paint
With the door open, you can see that though his work is conceptually radical, he still uses the finest traditional craftsmanship in his construction. 
Red Yellow Cabinet (inside)
By the way, in case you are interested in how Bart cuts the circle/holes in these pieces, as I learned in writing an earlier post, he uses a custom build vertical mill (a tool typically used for drilling in metal) that he modified for woodworking. A reasonable person would never consider going to the trouble but, thankfully, Bart is completely unreasonable. 

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