“A Revolution in Wood: The Bresler Collection” opens at the Renwick Gallery, the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s branch museum for craft and decorative arts, Sept. 24 and closes Jan. 30, 2011.
“A Revolution in Wood” celebrates the gift of 66 pieces of turned and carved wood to the Smithsonian American Art Museum by the noted collectors Fleur and Charles Bresler. The collection includes masterpieces that highlight the expressive capacity of craft’s most organic material by some of the best-known wood artists in the United States. Nearly half of the artworks in the exhibition will be on public display for the first time. The Bresler’s gift, one of the largest of wood art to any American museum, establishes at the museum’s Renwick Gallery one of the preeminent public collections of the medium in the United States. The exhibition is organized by Nicholas R. Bell, curator at the Renwick Gallery.
“We are honored that Fleur and Charles Bresler chose to give their deeply personal collection to the museum and look forward to sharing these beautiful works with audiences now and for generations to come,” said Elizabeth Broun, The Margaret and Terry Stent Director of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
“Contemporary wood art’s relative youth in comparison to other craft media, and its development at the grass roots level make it an exciting medium to watch,” said Bell. “The Breslers’ extraordinary gift has provided us with the rare opportunity to examine recent developments in the field through the finest examples.”
Wood turning describes the act of shaping a block of wood with handheld tools as it spins on a lathe, the medium’s foundational tool. The technique, though used in carpentry for centuries, has only been employed by artists in United States since about the 1940s. During the early 1970s, a growing number of inquisitive makers took up wood turning as a means of exploring new modes of artistic expression and working outside a craft establishment that many perceived as confining. The lathe’s ease of use and the relative speed with which basic skills could be mastered inspired a fledgling community of American artists to become wood turners. Works in the exhibition, from the 1980s and 1990s, display the movement’s growing sophistication.
The evolution of wood turning toward a more sculptural aesthetic occurred gradually and was driven by an innovative group of artists. Objects by David Ellsworth, Mark and Melvin Lindquist, Edward Moulthrop and Rude Osolnik demonstrate the extraordinary range of expression achievable on the lathe. Recent works by Ron Fleming, Michelle Holzapfel, Hugh McKay, Mark Sfirri and others reveal the advent of new techniques, including multi-axis turning, the incorporation of secondary materials and a strong focus on carving. The Bresler collection illustrates these evolving techniques and aesthetics, which has led to increased use of the term “wood art” rather than “wood turning” to describe the medium.
Mark Lindquist’s increasingly bold style transformed how many artists saw wood as a material. Frank Cummings, J. Paul Fennell and William Hunter pierced their vessels, removing the functionality of the objects. Other artists, such as Derek Bencomo and Bruce Mitchell, moved the field away from the conservative forms of the past, emphasizing instead wood’s natural edge and complex figure.
The most dramatic shift in the last 20 years has been the advent of carving, which is enjoying a renewed energy as a result of wood turning’s recent popularity. The work of artists Janel Jacobson, Michael Lee and Norm Sartorius exists strictly for contemplation and exhibits a preciousness typically reserved for objets d’art. Many of the extraordinary carved works of Fleming and Holzapfel may resemble functional forms but are pure sculpture.
All 66 objects in the exhibition will be available in a slide show on the museum’s website. The exhibition will travel to several museums in the United States beginning in 2012; information about confirmed venues will be available online at americanart.si.edu/exhibitions/index.cfm#traveling