Wood is our oldest natural resource. It has been fuel, food, shelter and made into tools for millennia – and it’s a staple that we can freely renew. Wood has a unique range of qualities – some woods are best for boat building while others are more suitable for furniture, other woods can be easily bent and twisted into complicated forms, as in the work of Italian sculptor Roberto Almagno and harder woods can be carved and polished like Barbara Hepworth’s solid round sculptures. From house building to delicate veneering wood is central to human creativity.
I feel like I’ve always been around wood. My dad was a maintenance electrician in a factory but one of his first loves was carpentry. It enabled him to make massive changes to our house, construct several sheds on his allotment and he even built a boat in the front garden. As a child I always had some lengths of ply or blocks of teak to play with and then there were his tools. Simple but mysterious, housed neatly in his shed, there were gauges, saws, planes, chisels and mallets.
No surprise then that when I started to make art, wood became my main material.
One of my earliest and greatest influences has been the work of Louise Nevelson (1899-1988). She scoured the New York streets for discarded wood that she could fuse into her sculptures. This cast of wooden parts would be transformed into a unified whole by a coat of monochromatic spray paint. Black, white, or gold. Some of her pieces can sit neatly on a plinth, while others are human size towers and even more exciting are her room size constructions like ‘Mrs N’s Palace’.
Contemporary American artist, Leonardo Drew doesn’t use found objects but fabricates them in his studio. As well as wood he uses metal, iron, cotton, rope and paper. He dyes, burns and weathers his materials, even creating his own rust to create large scale sculptures and installations.
All of his works are numbered, not named. In 1988 when he got to Number Eight, Drew had found his voice, whatever had gone on before with one to seven fed into number eight creating a blackened rope and wood piece that hangs eerily ‘offering an ominous vision of chaos, death and decay pulled in from the streets’ (Claudia Schuckli). In much of his work he stacks and wedges blocks and scraps of wood to create towering and repetitive wall pieces.
Drew and Nevelson are both artists that work with wood that has already been machined and in many cases has had another life. However many sculptors work with wood in it’s raw state like Richard Deacon and David Nash. Italian Arte Povera artist Giuseppe Penone, took a tree and stripped it of it’s bark and burrowed into it, revealing the older tree inside. He called it ‘The Hidden Life Within”. I find this piece very moving, I feel as if the tree lives on and will live on forever.
The work of Austrian artist, Herbert Golser draws on wood’s density while still capturing it’s fragility – some of his pieces are cut into wafer thin pieces that look as if they may flutter away in the breeze.
Other artists use machined wood to create sculptures and installations in the manner of a carpenter building shelves – but it’s carpentry gone mad! Chicago based artist, Mike Rea creates work in this way, a lot of it is too figurative for me but his piece ‘Send A Monkey to Space If Remo Williams Can Not Do It’ (great title!) is really inspiring. It’s beautifully made and has the eccentricity of Belgian sculptor Panamarenko.
Tatlin’s tower was never built but is instantly recognisable and it’s history feeds into Kaczynski’s installation. In her wood constructed installations she not only uses the space they create but will have actors and the audience participate in the piece.
These are just a few of the artists, working with wood that have and continue to inspire me.