Against the Grain: Wood in Contemporary Art, Craft and Design
Museum of Arts and Design, New York City
19 March–7 July 2013
by CINDI Di MARZO
Certainly, wood’s familiar and practical applications in day-to-day life in the home and industry can make it more accessible when encountered in the rarified atmosphere of art museums, but such familiarity can also be disarming. Wood is, literally, with us from the cradle to the grave. Whether consciously or otherwise, seeing an object made with wood connects us to powerful symbolism attached to its source – the tree – and opens the door to surprising gifts of delight and meaning.
A showing of nearly 80 works by 57 artists, craftspeople and designers, currently displayed at the Museum of Arts and Design (MAD) in Manhattan is, decidedly, weighted on the side of surprise. From traditional crafting techniques and intricate decorative treatments like marquetry to abstract sculpture, conceptual installations, deconstructed finishes and computer-aided design, the exhibition presents a renaissance in wood art that is gaining momentum.
As a sustainable, multifaceted medium, wood attracts diverse makers and designers like those included in the show; among them architect Frank Gehry (whose kettle with wooden fixtures in signature fish form is in the show), sculptors Martin Puryear and Ursula von Rydingsvard, installation artists Sarah Oppenheimer and Sofia Maldonado, assemblage artist Betye Saar, and studio wood artists Thomas Loeser and Silas Kopf.
Against the Grain: Wood in Contemporary Art, Craft and Design was organised by MAD and curated by Lowery Stokes Sims with Elizabeth Edwards Kirrane. Before coming to New York, the exhibition previewed with 60 works in fall 2012 at the Mint Museum in Charlotte, NC. It is part of MAD’s Materials & Process series, which has considered such equally down-to-earth substances as dirt (Swept Away: Dust, Ash and Dirt as Media in Art and Design) and cut paper (Slash: Paper under the Knife).
Most works in Against the Grain date from 2000, but some were commissioned for the show. The stated focus on “post-modernist approaches and strategies” might augur the overly cerebral, yet the works seem organic as the trees that inspire and supply them; smooth blendings of past, present and, occasionally, future with computer-aided design.
Mirroring the exhibition, a 160-page, full-colour hardcover catalogue is organised into categories that suggest connections between disparate means and ways: “Logging On,” “Digitally Speaking,” “Whimsies and Caprices” and “Politically Speaking” are just some of the provocative themes that guide readers to a deeper understanding of concept, medium and process.
Studio International spoke with Sims, Charles Bronfman International Curator at MAD, about wood’s perennial appeal for makers; trends leading to a wood art renaissance; confluences and divergences between participating artists; the ways in which artists working with wood define themselves and what they do; and their implicit commitment to sustainability.
Cindi Di Marzo: Thank you for speaking with Studio International, Lowery. Against the Grain is one of the most eclectic exhibitions I have viewed in some time. How long did it take to develop the themes, acquire the work and select the artists?
Lowery Stokes Sims: The entire process took about five years. It was the first project I thought of when I joined the staff of MAD in 2007, and figuring out how to approach such a rich and almost endless subject took me on many interesting and challenging intellectual journeys and encounters. I went from an Americanist focus – to highlight the role of wood in the imagination and history of the United States – to one that started in the 1960s, as the interests and approaches of wood in the genres of art, craft and design started to converge. In the end, with the advice of our Senior Curator David McFadden, I settled on a millennial approach and focused on work created since 2000.
CDM: Wood is one of the oldest artistic mediums. It astounds me that artists continue to find new ways to work with it. More astounding is that so many are referencing and/or continuing cherished traditions. For instance, Yard Sale Project, who embrace Arts and Crafts principles while pioneering what they call “Chaos technique,” integrating computer-aided design in their furniture projects.1 Can you point to a few other artists in the show who, as makers, are committed to craft ideals?
LS: That is an interesting question. The exhibition is so conceptual in nature that when I’ve lectured on it people ask me if, indeed, the artists like working in wood. I think what is interesting is that practically all the designers, craftspersons and artists in the exhibition have a hands-on approach to some degree to the material, even those who use technology. The exception might be Eric Souther whose Search Engine: Chair is an entirely digital project. In fact, how we would define design at MAD would be more along the lines of the designer/craftsman or artist. The role of the hand is key to us in considering our institutional focus on materials and process.
CDM: The range of works and artists’ backgrounds are indicative of a true renaissance in wood art. Can you describe some trends fueling it; for example, the desire of many artists for sustainable materials, and the ability to maintain high standards of handcrafting while appealing to sophisticated tastes?
LS: I think that a sense of environmental responsibility is almost implicit in the exhibition. Very often, artists are using “felled” wooden elements – such as Floris Wubbin, who used branches from the Pollard tree in his shelf element – or certified wood products. It is clear that wood has a strong hold on the human imagination, especially if one comes from regions of the world where forests are prevalent. It is almost imprinted on one’s DNA. Suzanne Ramljak talks about that in her [catalogue] essay, “Knocking on Wood.” She reminds us that tree worship and notions of spiritual power in trees goes back to our prehistory and brings us up to contemporary times by referencing the  movie, The Lorax, based on the  Dr. Seuss book.
In addition, artists are exploring ways to destabilise our notions of forms associated with wood, such as Sebastian Errazuriz’s Porcupine Cabinet, where the support elements can be opened up to resemble porcupine quills. Or Mark Moskovitz’s Facecord chest, which when closed resembles a pile of corded wood stored for the winter. And I shouldn’t forget Elisa Strozyk’s almost improbable wood veneer textile, whose flexibility belies the wood bonded to the fabric.
CDM: The exhibition themes draw attention to the fluid nature of categorisation, and I found myself meeting assemblage artist Betye Saar in the “Mixing and Matching” section, then drawing connections between Saar and Hope Sandrow, who appears in the “Politically Speaking” section, and finally linking them and artists showcased in “Whimsies and Caprices”. I also felt a kinship between Saar, born in 1926, and Frank Gehry, born in 1929, as if they sort of anchor a show filled with post-modern interpretation. Are there material and/or aesthetic concerns that apply across themes?
LS: Definitely. The themes were conceived as a way to organise the vastly varied material. But, certainly, one work could be in multiple themes. In our installation here at MAD, we have mentioned the themes in the introductory wall texts, and indicated the designated theme for the individuals’ works on their labels. But we have organised the installation more fluidly, which will help to encourage the visitor to make associations and connections as you just have.
CDM: Participants in Against the Grain identify themselves in myriad ways – craftsperson, sculptor, studio wood artist, etc. In some cases, they might be handling wood with similar methods, exploring similar concepts or dialoguing with similar political concerns. Silas Kopf, an expert in marquetry, states that, “ultimately what I’m selling is a skill, and if somebody thinks that it’s combined with some sense of art, so much the better. But I was happy with the concept of being a craftsman.”2 How does the way an artist defines his or her work affect perception in the museum and the marketplace?
LS: (LOL). A provocative and interesting question. Elizabeth Kirrane, assistant curator and project manager for the exhibition, and I did a number of studio visits for this exhibition where the issue of identification came up. Some “artists” were more sanguine about being included in an exhibition that also included design and craft. Others were adamant that we not “make them into craftspersons”. We are not making a case for a genre, nor are we suggesting that any one creator is anything but how he or she defines him or herself. What we set out to do was to look across the landscape of creativity and identify works that often question and flirt with the boundaries among genres. Courtney Smith and Roy McMakin are cases in point. They are considered “artists” but their work certainly involves craftsmanship and even design. What makes their work provocative in this dialogue is that in the works in the exhibition they are using actual furniture components as opposed to Alexandre Arrechea, who is creating forms that evoke architecture and furniture.
CDM: You have noted that concern for sustainability is implicit for artists working with wood now. An artist like Hugo França, though, makes sustainability explicit by fashioning one-of-a-kind sculptures using felled trees from the rural Bahia area of Brazil and bringing out innate features of his material. Can you discuss a few other artists who are reclaiming resources and, either by favouring wood’s natural characteristics or deconstructing them, making art supportable in an age of environmental disorder?
LS: Yes. The ones who have made a point of it are: Leonardo Drew, represented by wall elements made from construction detritus; Phoebe Washburn, who is obviously using “used” wooden elements in her wall piece with a fan; Marc Andre Robinson, whose installation in our lobby is constructed from found and used chairs; and Piet Hein Eek, represented by two chairs and wallpaper from his “scrapwood” design collection.
CDM: Like all renaissances, the thriving field of wood art demands time and attention to uncover its many facets. Thank you, Lowery, for giving us a glimpse of the elegant, witty, provocative and finely crafted works that await those who visit the show.
1. Yard Sale Project is designer Ian Spencer and maker Cairn Young.
2. Exhibition catalogue, p.19.