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Exhibition at Peabody Essex Museum celebrates superlative contemporary wood art
David Ellsworth, Intersphere from Solstice Series, 1991, burned ash and pigment, 14 x 16 x 9 1/2 in (35.6 x 40.6 x 24.2 cm). Peabody Essex Museum, Gift of Lillian Montalto Bohlen. Photo by Terry Martin.

SALEM, MASS.- This winter, the Peabody Essex Museum presents an exhibition celebrating the beauty and sensuality of wood art. International in scope and diverse in form, Audacious: The Fine Art of Wood from the Montalto Bohlen Collection showcases one of the world's finest contemporary wood art collections with more than 100 singular works. With alluring surfaces and textures made from familiar and exotic woods, the pieces featured in Audacious are as surprising as they are beautiful. Some are recognizable as vessels, bowls and vases while others are completely abstract, emphasizing form over function. The exhibition - on view from February 21 to June 21, 2015 - coincides with Bob and Lillian Montalto Bohlen's donation of 47 works of contemporary wood art to PEM, which enhances the museum's prestigious collection of American decorative art.

Through the use of lathes, turning, carving, painting, even blowtorches and chainsaws, the featured artists push the boundaries of the medium while taking into consideration the unique characteristics of wood grain, tone, color and texture. Sourcing a wide variety of wood from around the globe, these artists create with materials such as quilted maple, ponderosa pine, blue mahoe, European boxwood, Honduran rosewood, chakte kok, tulipwood, coconut palm, buckeye burl, packberry, pearwood, locust and pistachio root. Ever mindful of conservation concerns, many of the artists exclusively use downed and damaged trees. In some of the pieces, foreign materials are introduced such as pigment, inlay, gilding, even ground-up comic books and deer antler.

"This amazing collection shows the dynamic nature of contemporary wood art," said Dean Lahikainen, PEM's Carolyn and Peter Lynch Curator of American Decorative Art. "The pieces are at times difficult to reconcile with our expectations about the look and feel of wood."

This six-part exhibition explores complex forms and techniques while spotlighting how artists use contrast, texture, color and pattern to develop technically sophisticated compositions. While some works emphasize wood's natural characteristics, others explore trompe l'oeil and elaborate surface embellishment, such as Hawks and Owls created by Saskatchewan artists Frank Sudol and Cam Merkle in 2000 (pictured at left). Using only birch wood and acrylic paint, the artists have created a delicate, gravity-defying sculpture of carved feathers with positive and negative spaces that loosely echo the shape of a vase.

Audacious also celebrates how contemporary wood artists integrate storytelling and personal narrative into their work. Binh Pho's 2009 carved and painted box elder vase Seven Poppies (pictured right) is layered in symbolic narrative. As Pho explains: "the dragonfly represents the military helicopters of my childhood in Vietnam ... the peacock feather represents the dream, poppies speak of mystery and clouds represent change. When people become familiar with my stories - whether autobiographical or fictional - they understand my works and what I seek to share."

Bob and Lillian Montalto Bohlen, based in Massachusetts, have tirelessly promoted contemporary wood artists and have collected their works for the last two decades, leading an ambitious effort to promote artistic woodworking as a fine art. "In 1996, we decided we wanted to convince the art world that the best artists working in wood were artists -- not craftspeople," said Bob Bohlen. "So that's been our singular focus: to persuade the art world and the museum world that the great wood artists are equivalent to the great ceramic artists, painters and sculptors."

The Bohlens have directly supported nearly two dozen contemporary wood art artists, providing them the freedom to take creative risks and deeply explore their practice. One such artist who benefited from the Bohlens' patronage is Hugh McKay, who began to experiment with kilns and incorporate cast glass into his work, adding a striking new dimension and feel. He also experiments with casting in other materials. Four of the Iowa-based artist's resulting pieces -- crenulated orbs made of madrone burl, cast glass, bronze and nickel -- are on display in Audacious.

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February 24, 2015

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