Anyone who has walked into a Martha Whittington exhibition in Atlanta over the past several years might be surprised by her current solo show, “With the Grain: Works on Paper,” at Sandler Hudson Gallery. While her previous shows featured large sculptural objects within installations or environments that included audio and video accompaniment and even human performers, “With the Grain” is a series of mostly small works that simply seek to explore the form and beauty of wood.
Whittington is known for immersing herself in a celebration of her materials. The pieces in this exhibition are created with her signature precision and perfectionism, but the weighty themes that often characterize her installations — themes of death, mystical archetypes, mindless labor, cultural assimilation — are absent. In “With the Grain,” Whittington’s creative purpose is to make art that stands on its own as a thing of beauty.
Most of the works in the show are framed and wall-mounted, with the exception of a trio of aluminum and mahogany sculptures in the center of the intimate gallery space. In the smaller pieces, Whittington takes white Reeves BFK paper and golden-brown mahogany and crafts them into spare, clean, geometric shapes that are then mounted on cream linen and framed in bleached pine. The overall effect calls to mind midcentury Scandinavian design with its emphasis on minimalist objects made of wood and natural fibers.
There are several recurring shapes in these constructions. One shape is a white paper “plank” that she devised by hand-embossing wood on pieces of BFK, permeating the paper with a ghostly grain. The planks in one piece, titled MT1115, are connected to each other in a way that suggests mortise and tenon joints. In BJ515 and BJ315, the paper planks are joined by mahogany bowtie keys, the wood pieces cut paper-thin, the paper planks embossed with wood grain. Whittington is playing with the fundamental relationship between the materials, the result being artworks that contain a quiet simplicity and sometimes a bit of irony.
Another common element in Whittington’s constructions is the mahogany tree/branch. MB315 is an arrangement of three of these branches. The 6-foot-tall mahogany rods are narrow and perfectly straight except for small dowels that extend out from them like sawed-off twigs. The shapes are so pared down to their essence as to be almost abstract. In QB215, Whittington hand-cut two 9-by-8-inch mahogany blocks on top of which she placed a tiny tree, like an abstracted memory of what the block of wood used to be.
In a 2014 interview with BURNAWAY, Whittington talked about her process-focused approach to her art and her devotion to research. She said, “It becomes all about the material, the ability to manipulate and the countless hours of research on the subject matter. I love to research things!” When she embarked on “With the Grain,” she delved into paper art forms and discovered quilling, a Victorian craft that involves rolling paper into tight spirals and using them to make shapes and designs. She then quilled BFK paper into small, medium, and large spirals, which appear most notably in TRQ315, where the viewer has the “aha!” moment realizing the quilled paper represents tree stumps. Once again, the work is light-heartedly self-referential. To solidify the reference, Whittington placed a tiny golden-brown tree/branch next to each white quilled stump.
Four of the most striking pieces in the show are squares of embossed paper with hand-cut geometric shapes within a circular center. The circles represent saw blades, and the shapes inside them are the various cuts of wood the blades create. Obviously, Whittington is deeply drawn to trees, but she doesn’t hug trees so much as embrace the process that enables her to transform the tree’s essence. In “With the Grain,” she creates art that is as much about the beauty of the tools and the labor involved in working with wood as it is about the beauty of the wood itself.
Martha Whittington’s “With the Grain: Works on Paper” is at Sandler Hudson Gallery through March 5.
Caroline Stover is a resident of Atlanta who works in publishing.