- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 23, 2002

Craftsmen who make wood objects on a lathe are passionate about the process, as the new exhibit at the Renwick Gallery, "Wood Turning Since 1930," amply demonstrates. The show of 130 pieces, ranging from functional to funky, is an extraordinarily handsome and educational presentation tracing the production of items made by hobbyists as well as professional studio turners, who explored new techniques and sold their wares. It also includes seminal objects that led to technical and aesthetic breakthroughs and, finally, shows the move to sculptural-like work by combining turning with carving and painting.
Visitors encountering wood-turners and their art for the first time will be pleasantly surprised and perhaps puzzled. Fortunately, an award-winning, six-minute video introduces the craft in the first gallery, and excellently written explanatory labels on each piece help, as well. For example, the film tells that a lathe is a machine for shaping a piece of wood or metal by spinning it. This technique resembles that of a potter, who "throws" clay on the potter's wheel or turntable. Both wood-turners and ceramicists start by making basic vessel shapes.
The film communicates the artist's visceral feel for the wood as he turns the lathe. It also portrays the broad scope of the show. The exhibit includes early production pieces made by Carl Huskey and his family in the 1940s; Scandinavian- and Asian-inspired work of early wood-turning professionals James Prestini and Bob Stocksdale; Mark Lindquist's textured wood creations; David Ellsworth's elegantly thin vessels; and what the curators call "hyperbolic objects," in which turning is the first step in works featuring tour-de-force carving for the more sculptural works.
It's important that visitors carry the wood-turners' feeling for the sensuality of wood as they explore the show.
The exhibit begins with some of the handsomest works in the show. Mr. Prestini, the first studio wood-turner of distinction in the United States and a sculptor and teacher, was interested in purity of form. He experimented with various shapes such as bracelets and cigarette cups in the 1930s, but he concentrated on platters and bowls that allowed him to exploit and express their graceful lines. Mr. Prestini also created extraordinarily thin forms, preferring satiny, lacquered finishes and such evenly figured woods as birch, cherry, walnut and Mexican mahogany. He was a true child of the Bauhaus aesthetic.
While Mr. Prestini concentrated on shapes, Mr. Stocksdale worked with the color and figuration of the wood. He had taught himself turning skills in a World War II conscientious objectors camp and concentrated on forms inspired by Chinese and Japanese pottery. His 1958 "Bowl" of California black walnut shows an angular foot and curvaceous belly reminiscent of Asian ceramic and lacquer rice bowls.
Other early professional wood-turners were Rude Osolnik, the most productive turner of the 1950s, and Melvin Lindquist and Ed Moulthrop who followed in the 1960s. Although separated geographically, all three prized individual expression over the simplicity of form advocated by Mr. Prestini and Mr. Stocksdale. In "Salad Set" (c. 1950), Mr. Osolnik used shimmering, reddish-black rosewood for a sculptural combining of differently shaped and -sized bowls. He pioneered the use of waste scraps and wood with natural defects as well in his classically handsome "Bowl" (1975) of laminated Baltic birch plywood.
Mr. Osolnik used redwood burl twig for his "Bud Vase," or "Weed Pot," of 1965. He maximized the cracks, remnants of bark and different colors of a piece of found wood to make this organic, almost primeval, piece. Viewers can look down into fissures that look volcanic. The piece remains functional, however, as the turner drilled a narrow hole into the inside for a single stem.
The use of irregularity and natural defects in natural materials led to new kinds of expressions. Artists such as Toshiko Takaezu influenced the change from open bowls to thin-necked vessels. The 1950s studio craft programs and the work of the American Craftsmen's Council led to cross-fertilization of ideas in different art media during the decade. Ed Moulthrop was another turner who initiated new forms in spalted, diseased and lightning-struck woods, in much the way that Japanese-American furniture maker George Nakashima used burled woods for his most handsome tables and chairs.
Melvin Lindquist and his son, Mark, continued to exploit irregularities and natural defects in materials while David Ellsworth created "hollow," thin-walled vessels by inventing a cutting tool with a bent shaft. Mark Lindquist added a chain saw to his wood turning for such totemic pieces as the 7-foot-high "Silent Witness No. 1, Oppenheimer" and the "Captives" series inspired by Michelangelo's "Dying Slaves."
Both wood turners perceived their art as a kind of formal sculpture, even while Mark Lindquist used wood turning for massive forms and textured surfaces and Mr. Ellsworth created delicately elegant hollow pieces. They created the two diametrically different poles from which much of later wood turning grew.
Ceramicist Peter Voulkos and his followers began to achieve museum and gallery recognition in the 1970s, a period when wood-turners were striving to achieve the same for their craft. Mark Lindquist worked hard to have his work accepted in the fine arts category of sculpture. This paralleled efforts for recognition in other craft fields, such as glass art with Dale Chihuly and blacksmithing with Albert Paley.
Wood turning does, indeed, become more sculptural and confused in the gallery that presents trompe l'oeil ("fool the eye") "hyperbolic objects" and "message art" by Michelle Holzapfel ("Domestic Violence II"), Craig Nutt ("Radish Salad Bowl"), Mark Sfirri and Robert C. Dodge ("Secretaire"), Hugh E. McKay ("Heart") and "Chessed Table" by Michael Hosaluk, Mark Sfirri, Steve Loar, Graham Carson and a class at Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts.
Miss Holzapfel used trompe l'oeil to insert content in pieces in the 1980s. With "Domestic Violence II," she pushed the envelope of craft techniques the catalog describes the sculpture as, "a whirlwind of domestic objects sucked into a funnel in a dynamic, even menacing, array" to make this feminist protest piece. Yet, it's a bit of a stretch to envision, as the catalog would have us, the work as representing "… the dominant culture's ongoing disregard for the difficulties of domestic life, the day-to-day struggle to fulfill responsibilities to family, community, and self." Another example of art about gender haven't viewers had enough by now?
The work of Mr. Nutt, Mr. Sfirri and Mr. Dodge, Mr. McKay and Mr. Hosaluk, et al., most of it painted, strives for humor and irony but ends up seeming merely cutsey. Ron Fleming's "Earth Offering" (buckeye burl) , William Hunter's "Unfolding Lilies" (pink ivory, ebony dust and epoxy resin) and Merryll Saylan's "Rice Bowl Set" (laminated bird's-eye maple) show that the "hyperbolic" approach of wood turning-and-carving can also be most enjoyable.
The show ends with the inclusion of some challenging objects but presents too many categories "Framing the Turned Object," "Ornamental Turning" and the "Design Aesthetic" that interfere with a whole-hearted enjoyment of the art. The Wood Turning Center in Philadelphia and the Yale University Art Gallery in New Haven, Conn., organized this valuable exhibit but could have cut it in half. Focusing in depth on a few of the most important wood-turners would have made a better and more understandable display. A section explaining why certain turners used the kinds of woods they did would also be valuable.

WHAT: "Wood Turning Since 1930"
WHERE: Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Pennsylvania Avenue at 17th Street NW
HOURS: 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily through July 14
PHONE: 202/357-2700

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