Wood is probably not the first thing that comes to mind when you think about the ideal materials available for artistic expression but unlike paper, canvas, or other materials, wood can be a surprisingly creative medium for artists. Some artists use it because they have no easy or affordable access to traditional art supplies, and others specifically choose wood for its wide array of hues, textures, and grains. Coincidentally, two current exhibitions, one in Athens and one in Atlanta, demonstrate strikingly diverse approaches to wood in ways that extend far beyond the realm of traditional sculpture and functional objects.
“A Cut Above: Wood Sculpture from the Gordon W. Bailey Collection” at the High Museum of Art focuses on the work of Southern vernacular artists whose self-taught techniques and working methods transform discarded wood fragments, logs, and tree trunks into strange and wondrous personal visions. Some of those featured are familiar names to folk art collectors, such as Thornton Dial, Jr., the eldest son of the Alabama-based Outsider artist who died in January 2016, and Bessie Harvey, who saw hidden spirits in the tree roots and branches she transformed into sculptural assemblages and mystical figures.
None of the more than 25 works in this exhibition has been viewed before, and it includes such originals as Atlanta Olympics, 1996, a colorful and extravagant wood-carved homage by Leroy Almon, and Mr. and Mrs. Hank Aaron, which was created by Almon’s mentor Elijah Pierce. The latter is based on a 1974 Ebony magazine cover featuring the Aarons after the Atlanta Braves legend hit his 715th home run. Pierce adds a touch of heaven bound reverie in his version of the couple’s portrait, which looks like a painting when viewed from across the room. On closer inspection, Pierce’s creation reveals itself as an intricate, hand-painted bas-relief panel with a 3D-like quality.
New Orleans artist Herbert Singleton is represented by Crawling Out of Hell, a startling tableau of wood and paint that is typical of the artist’s symbolic friezes expressing biblical themes or metaphoric representations of his own struggles during his lifetime. In fact, a great deal of the work shares a thematic interest in faith and redemption, including two different interpretations of the Bible story of Jonah and the Whale by Sulton Rogers and W.C. Owens, which should particularly fascinate children with their playful but nonetheless alarming depictions.
Animals and human figures are also prevalent in many of the pieces that capture a moment in time from everyday life, such as Charles Butler’s Untitled (Mother with Children Sharing a Meal), or that straddle the line between the ordinary and the fantastical as in Raymond Coins’s life-size dog sculpture or O.L. Samuels’s glitter-and-sawdust rendition of a Tennessee walking horse, Charlie Mae.
Offering an entirely different perspective from Outsider art is the more precise and exacting craft of wood-turning, an ancient skill that has been enjoying a resurgence since the mid-’70s. Presented by the Georgia Museum of Art, “Turned and Sculpted: Wood Art from the Collection of Arthur and Jane Mason” is an illuminating retrospective that showcases work by such contemporary woodturners as David Ellsworth, Dale Nish, Robyn Horn, Dennis Elliott (the former drummer for the band Foreigner) and three generations of the Atlanta-based Moulthrop family (Ed, Philip and Matt).
The work on display offers examples of the type of work that was prevalent in the movement over 35 years ago, when exquisitely crafted vessels and bowl-like objects were not uncommon, but there is also more current work that pushes the boundaries of the medium, blurring the line between woodcraft and art object. For example, Rod Cronkite’s Moonscape #1 (1987) could easily have come from another planet with its strangely alluring lunar landscapes and volcanic craters sculpted from a maple burl. And Mel Lindquist’s yellow birch vase from 1980 looks like it was formed by molten lava.
Any type of wood is fair game for a wood-turner, and the material can range from a piece of Cocobolo wood from Nigeria to poison ivy branches to ironwood, an extremely toxic form of cellulose (it is lethal to the human respiratory system) found in Arizona and Southeastern California. But the material and what it eventually reveals is part of the mission. “Each tree has a story to tell,” says Matt Moulthrop. “Wormholes convey past life, rings communicate growth, and certain colors tell the story of death from lightning or blight. My job is to tell the story in picture-book fashion, showing rather than talking, extending the life of the tree rather than ending it.” He also revealed that, “There is no such thing as a perfect piece of wood. It doesn’t exist. Making something appear perfect is the challenge.”
Wood-turning is still viewed by a great deal of the academic museum community as a craft and not the sort of work that belongs in a fine art collection. But exhibitions such as “Turned and Sculpted” are starting to change that perception, and pieces like Snow Home by Marilyn Campbell or Three Rings by Todd Hoyer are not merely superb examples of modern design; they are also informed by personal narratives. Campbell’s sculpture grew out of her experience of living through the “black and white” Canadian winters near Lake Huron, while Hoyer’s burned and gilded Mesquite urn represents a period of mourning and personal loss for the artist.
Certainly some of the work here is much closer to decorative arts than traditional turned wood, such as Matt Moulthrop’s elegant mimosa bowl or Ed Moulthrop’s ash leaf maple Donut, which resembles a stunning feat made of hand blown glass. And when you consider more experimental work like Robyn Horn’s Diagonal Cubes, made of redwood and graphite, you can see how some contemporary wood-turners are moving far beyond any art world assumptions about their craft.
“A Cut Above: Wood Sculpture from the Gordon W. Bailey Collection” is on view at the High Museum of Atlanta through October 30. “Turned and Sculpted: Wood Art from the Collection of Arthur and Jane Mason” can be seen at the Georgia Museum of Art in Athens through August 7.
Jeff Stafford writes about art, film, music, gardening and other favorite topics for various digital publications.