Review: "Wood.Works" at Arvada Center is just right for the moment
Art feels personal these days. Maybe that is because we’ve all been through a difficult time — together, as a global community — and we are hyper-conscious of the shared trauma that comes with being human during a pandemic.
I find it difficult to look at objects without thinking equally of the artists who made them; creation and creator are nearly inseparable. Even when the art is distinct and its intent particular, I know that the artist likely went through a lot of the same things I experienced during this year-long lockdown: isolation, fear, paranoia, panic, anger, unimaginable boredom. I wonder how that emotional mix played into the act of art-making.
That feeling is magnified when you are actually familiar with the person who produced the piece, which is the case with many of the artists included in the “Wood.Works” exhibit currently at the Arvada Center.
If you go
“Wood.Works” continues through April 25 at the Arvada Center, 6901 Wadsworth Blvd., Arvada. It’s free but advance reservations are required. Info at 720-898-7200 or arvadacenter.org.
There are 24 participants in the show, all local and mostly old hands. Anyone who frequents galleries and museums (or checks out art on Facebook) in Denver will recognize at least a few of them. You see a label, look at the name, remember their contribution to Colorado culture and you are glad to know they are well enough physically, mentally, creatively to have made this thing you behold.
“Wood.Works” speaks to the moment in that way. Its timing is excellent. All of the 125 objects on display are made from wood, and so are the dozens more featured in a separate, winning sideshow of sculptures by wood-obsessed artist Carley Warren, who has been making art for 50 years here.
For folks who have stayed close to home these past 12 months and who are just venturing out lately because the virus appears to be slowing, wood provides a natural warmth that might soften the shock of being back in a public setting. It’s easy, organic, comfortable. It’s the stuff of homes and furniture, of trees. It’s tactile, traditional, hand-made.
Versatile, too. There’s surprisingly little duplication of method in this sprawling, two-story display, put together by the Arvada Center’s curatorial team, which lists the styles at-hand as: “cut, carved, assembled, glued, layered, painted, stained, burned and peeled.”
That’s broad enough to include graceful and monolithic sculptural pieces from artists like Jerry Wingren, Anne Shutan, Kazu Oba and Norman Epp. Each bends or carves wood to its soft extremes or presents found wood objects in a way that shows off their best curves, lines and layers.
It’s open-minded enough to allow in complicated constructions by Deborah Jang, who finds the connections between abandoned wooden objects, like oars, spoons, shutters, paddles and toys, and unites them together into colorful collages.
Or to make space for Mark Bueno’s wall-mounted, pine puzzles, which transform tiny segments of cut-wood into precise, geometric formations. Or Leo Franco’s trophy-like pedestal pieces made from cut and stained sections of hardwood.
Other artists allow wood to retain its wild qualities. Eileen Roscina weaves together raw, willow twigs for her piece, “Shelter,” which stands at least 6 feet tall and takes a shape that is somewhere between female womb and village hut.
Patrick Marold, who tends to work big, contributes “Forest Floor,” an installation set up in the gallery atrium that is made from 31 tall, thin, spiky trees arranged into a circle that is about 8 feet in diameter. Guests are invited to enter the interior of the forest space and have a moment of reflection or whimsy or ceremony or prayer. The piece, equal parts art, architecture and campsite, invites all of that.
The diversity and complexity of the objects bring integrity to wood as a material that is fit for a fine-art gallery in the 21st century. Wood has been around as an art medium since the beginning of human creativity, of course. The Midwest chainsaw artists of today, who buzz cottonwood and maple into eagles and bears, are the offspring of wood carvers and shapers who worked hundreds or thousands of years ago in Asia, Africa and Europe, using iron and stone cutting tools to hone juniper and poplar into their own sacred emblems. Every civilization over time claims wood as a primary art resource.
But it’s rare to see much of it in serious, contemporary galleries now. Wood gets pushed into the “folk art” category; it’s too easily considered the realm of stereotyped hobbyists — backyard whittlers who make dolls from sticks and wood-shop tinkerers who fashion cutting boards from slabs of mahogany. It’s not that anyone thinks of it as a lower form of art; it’s really just out of fashion.
Which makes working with it, and building an exhibit around it, different and adventurous, if not quite risky. “Wood,Works” takes on this dare with verve, and the artists deliver a depth and quality of goods that force a reconsideration of any idea that wood is archaic.
Jaime Molina’s figurative wood sculptures, influenced as much by Spanish Colonial church paintings as comics and street art, make wood feel of the moment. Autumn T. Thomas’ dramatic table-top sculptures — bent, hacked and instilled with motion — make wood feel urgent.
But it’s really the sheer quality of artists and objects in “Wood.Works” that serves to resurrect wood’s present-day reputation. The show wins its arguments by making its point, over and over.
So much art in wood, by so many makers, and so much of it created in the past year, during these strange times. Wood art is present, inviting, nature-made but human conditioned. It’s comforting, personal.
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