Of Chinese astrology's five elements, wood is associated with harmony and cooperation. Wood is also the heart and soul of the newly reinstalled Center for Art in Wood in Old City, Philadelphia, and harmony and cooperation are on full display. The Center for Art in Wood, which began in 1986 in response to a series of exhibitions and symposia, is recognized as 'one of the most valuable resources for the education, preservation and promotion of the field of art made from wood.' Residencies and outreach programs, an extensive permanent collection, exhibitions, and a research library mark it as the heart of an intriguing traditional and contemporary world. This is not a jolly uncle's good-natured whittling; the woodworking here is the absolute pinnacle of art, form, imagination, and craftsmanship. "Turning to Art in Wood: A Creative Journey," the 25th Anniversary exhibition of the permanent collection (on display until April 21, 2012) is a stunning experience, organized to invite the viewer on a meandering path from one breathtaking piece to the next. Make your way through the beautiful airy space, noting how groups of objects focus on a technique, a type of wood, another marvelous idea of how to coax the amazing material of wood into yet another fantastic form and finish. Whatever you think you know about woodworking, you're going to be surprised by how much more there is to be imagined, built, turned, polished, created. Wood in all forms sits on the floor, stands on pedestals and platform, hangs on the walls; one engaging work, a pile of rough, unfinished turned forms clusters against one inner wall under a video showing the artist, Robin Wood, at work. Silent but dynamic, Mr. Wood's presence in the gallery is a quietly compelling reminder of the labor that went into each of these objects, no matter how perfectly pristine the finished result.
Pristine is certainly the word for Galen Carpenter's exquisite inlaid vessel made of common chipboard inlaid with exotic rosewood and zircote, a combination that is as successful as unlikely. Color makes a good pairing of Hap Sakwa's highly polished Torus bowl of laquered poplar and maple and Robert F. Lyon's The Turner's Palett #2, a simple form delightful in its construction of basswood and colored pencils. Some pieces take a whimsical tack, like Jack Larimore's hefty chairs, titled Natural Desire, which spoof the idea of function into rich substantial sculptures, and Joanne Shima's Child's Chair, reminiscent of Gerrit Reitveld's painted icon and seemingly built of nostalgic TinkerToys. Gianfranco Angelini's elegant curved plate is one of many examples of unusual woods used for fine woodworking; his is a combination of common maple with Peruvian Palo Santo, a wood that is said to have been used by the Incas for spiritual cleansing. If I had to pick a favorite it would be very difficult but I might opt for Dale Nish's Nagare Vessel. The wood, wormy ash, lends natural holes and trails to a topography that is a beautifully conceived and finished conversation between artist, material, and nature itself. The result is a perfect reminder of the spirit of harmony and cooperation represented by the woodworker's art.
The Center for Art in Wood is at 141 N 3rd Street Philadelphia 19106
Turning to Art in Wood: A Creative Journey is on display through April 21, 2012