The Fuller Craft Museum’s big exhibit of recent and retrospective art works made from wood includes a world of pieces that raise the question, How do these guys do it?
Drawing on the museum’s own collection for almost half of the show’s 115 pieces, “Across the Grain: Turned and Carved Wood” features important 20th-century woodworking artists who bridge the gap between fine art and the contemporary craft world. It shows functional pieces such as tables, benches, and vessels, nonfunctional pieces suggested by some characteristic of the material, and pieces shaped entirely from the creator’s imagination.
“We conceived the exhibit to show the wonderful variety of things from carved and turned wood that have come to this museum,” said curator Jeff Brown last week.
The show includes light and graceful pieces such as Derek Bencomo’s “Come to Me Dancing,” a delicate vessel made of a Hawaiian wood that seems to be standing on tiptoes, and fanciful pieces such as the recently acquired “Hobbit’s Chamber Pot” by Jamie Russell with its handle shaped like twined forest vines. Robyn Horn’s “Shifting Planes III” created from cocobolo, a tropical hardwood, looks like a model for a stylishly tapered building.
What the show’s organizers call “conceptual pieces” is epitomized by Milo Mirabelli’s “Balloon Teapot,” a kind of magic lamp rising from its base.
“It’s purely nonfunctional,” Brown said, “but the conceit is wonderful. A yellow balloon is somehow trapped and restrained by the lower part, the gondola. It’s all carved wood painted and toned to look like something gathering dust in someone’s attic, a sensible teapot shape but you can imagine Aladdin rubbing it.”
Other nonfunctional pieces include a gold-leaf-painted sycamore disc with a deeply inscribed black X from Todd Hoyer’s “X Series.”
“Pater Noster” by Peter Dean suggests an obelisk-like column with a globe on top. It’s made of cherry wood, found objects, and granite.
Among the pieces that stretch the imagination of what can be made of wood, Brown pointed to Binh Pho’s “Flower in the Dream” and “Reflection #3,” tour de force carvings made from turned box elder. Curved, thin-walled, perforated with delicate slat-like openings to expose the interiors, the pieces look more like glass than wood. Pho cut the pattern “all free-hand,” Brown said, and cut out the perforations with a dental drill. The acrylic painted surfaces have an East Asian sensibility, the flowers on “Flower in the Dream” suggesting peacock feathers.
Other artists carve wood to suggest common objects ordinarily made by anything but wood, such the brown shopping bag (”Borsa da spese”), with paper-like folds and collapsed handles, carved by Livio De Marchi from Italian pine. Giles Gilson’s shiny “Black Ribbon Vase” made of lacquered birch looks like ceramic.
Mark Lindquist’s strongly evocative “Chieftain’s Bowl” resembles a functional object but is made from spalted maple burl. Wood is spalted, Brown said, when it starts to rot and the dark lines of fungus infiltrate the wood, creating patterns and effects used by carvers. This “bowl” exudes a sense of something very old and close to its origins, made to last a thousand years and heavy enough to test the chief who tries to raise it.
Spoons are a woodworker’s staple, but here their shape is defined by materials such as the maple “burl” — an abnormal growth found on some trees that offers carvers unique shapes and ring patterns — used by Michelle Holzapfel to create the intriguing shape of her “Vermont Spoons.”
A group of carvings offering organic variations on the spoon shape by Norm Sartorius include “Kneeling Spoons,” in which the cocobolo wood curves in a graceful downward shape.
At the other end of the show’s spectrum are the “turned” pieces, including chairs and chests by some of the country’s most prominent woodcraft artists. Wendell Castle’s low, sleek, aerodynamic “Zephyr Rocker” was made of curly maple in the ’70s. Sam Maloof’s sublime, light-on-its-feet “Lo Back Dining Chair, No. 8” suggests the beauty of Shaker functionality put on a material diet.
Terry Martin’s wondrous carving made from jarrah burl (an Australian hardwood) has a hole in the center, indicating it’s from his “The Cyclops” series. This piece is called “Hokusaicyclops” because the “foam-like” surface of the burl at the crest of the piece resembles the crest of the great wave in a famous woodcut by the Japanese artist Hokusai.
Martin, an Australian on a world tour, spoke last week at the Fuller exhibit. “He knows everything about wood there is to know,” said Titi Ngwenya, the museum’s communications director.
Brown also called attention to the first wood object acquired by the Fuller, “Totem#2,” an abstract piece assembled from found objects by Varujan Boghosian. It was a gift to the museum by Kahlil Gibran, nephew of the author by the same name.
“It was a carved piece far ahead of its time, made from found driftwood that kept the sense of ocean-washed wood,” Brown said.
Robert Knox can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.