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art review

Seeing beauty, messages in wood carvings at Fuller

Varujan Boghosian’s “Totem No. 2.”

Fuller Craft Museum

Varujan Boghosian’s “Totem No. 2.”

BROCKTON — “Across the Grain: Turned and Carved Wood,” a sensualist’s delight now up at the Fuller Craft Museum, features more than 100 objects made by woodworkers who seem to have an almost spiritual need to let their material speak. Like sculptors chiseling at marble, artists who turn and carve wood remove outer layers, seeking some innate form within. They’re guided by what they find: rivers of grain, spalted areas discolored by fungus or disease, unruly beauty of a burl.

Yum. I’m a patsy for wood and can easily get lost in the majestic cracks and seams of Mark Lindquist’s lathe-turned, chain-saw-notched “Chieftain’s Bowl,” a brawny urn made of spalted maple burl. Then there’s woodworking master Rude Osolnik’s “Vessel,” an entirely more delicate take on spalted maple, a small, tilting golden bowl written over with grain in the manner of a topological map. The wood seems yet alive with texture, line, and tone.

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Curator Jeffrey Brown divides the first gallery in half, with more colorful works on the right and more formal works on the left. The first group includes Binh Pho’s glowing, fastidiously made “Flower in the Dream,” a turned vessel fashioned from green box elder. He achieves an astonishing uniform thinness, shining a light bulb as he works to determine where more needs to be pared down — it turns out green wood transmits light. The artist carves ladder-like screens into the vessel, which climb with vines, and paints luminous peacock feathers over a fiery red ground below.

A series of chairs line the opposite wall, including Sam Maloof’s “Lo Back Dining Chair No. 8,” an economical yet swooping form that combines elements of Dutch Modern and contemporary design. Its low-slung back welcomes like a smile, its seat is cupped and inviting.

Another gallery focuses on texture, such as Lindquist’s craggy “Chieftain’s Bowl,” along with lineages — Lindquist took up woodworking like his father, Melvin, whose “Flare Mouth Vase,” with its rough and rocking open mouth, looks like something you might find Bacchus slurping wine from.

The show has at its very center, though, an object that is unlike any of the others. It’s at the center, but also removed, placed, along with a couple of other pieces, in between the two central galleries that house “Across the Grain.” Varujan Boghosian’s “Totem No. 2” is one of the Fuller’s earliest acquisitions, given to the museum in 1970, the year after it opened. It springs from a foxier and darker imagination than any other object here. Boghosian, still wily and at work making assemblages and collages, sculpted this one 50 years ago.

Boghosian repurposes found objects, in this case a rough plank narrowed to give it a neck, with two blunt shelves. An old ball of a hat form, also wood, sits on the top shelf, below the neck and above a jutting elbow of wood. Low nails bristle all over that hat form. Splintery and menacing, “Totem No. 2” is not in wood’s thrall. Indeed, it says something bracingly ugly; it depicts a collision of power and decay. It seems to bare its teeth and snarl.

It recalibrates the whole show, raising questions about the definition of beauty and the gulf between art and craft, a gulf that artists and curators have for years energetically worked to narrow to the point of erasure. Boghosian is an artist. His medium caters to his message, not the other way around, and his message is not pretty. It goes deeper than the sensual pleasure of many other works here. It doesn’t go across the grain; it goes against it.

Marvelous as much of the other stuff is — and made with more refined skill — it rarely goes to that dark and daring place. Indeed, some of it veers toward the cloyingly whimsical, even as it parades wood’s potential.

One piece comes close to Boghosian’s grit: Terry Martin’s “Hokusaiclops” from “The Cyclops” series, which manages to pull a clever art historical reference out of the hat at the same time it bends with the seductive curves we’ve come to expect from wood. Even better, just as it pulls us in, it hisses back at us.

The arcing piece is a cutaway from what began as a turned circular form. The smooth inner part, caramel brown, ripples with concentric circles that open to a hole at the center — the eye of the cyclops. The outer curve astonishes with its foamy texture, a violent, prickly froth of Jarrah burl. The piece is a wave, of course, a tribute to the great 18th- and 19th-century Japanese printmaker Katsushika Hokusai, whose most famous woodblock print depicts a cresting wave (minus the gaping, eyelike hole in the middle). It captures the force of the wave not only with its shape, but with its fierce outer texture.

Wood is a noble material and a versatile medium. Artists can’t help but defer to its natural beauty. But sumptuous as it is, it has the potential for so much more than simple seduction.

Cate McQuaid can be reached at catemcquaid@gmail.com.
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