This amazing collection shows the dynamic nature of contemporary wood art. The pieces are at times difficult to reconcile with our expectations about the look and feel of wood. — Dean Lahikainen, the Carolyn and Peter Lynch Curator of American Decorative Art
Forget everything you think you know about wood turning and what “art made of wood” should — or even could — look like. With the opening on February 21 of Audacious: The Fine Art of Wood from the Montalto Bohlen Collection, Salem’s Peabody Essex Museum is once again proving to be on the cutting edge of an art movement whose history has yet to be written. With this exhibit, what was once considered “craft” is now uncompromisingly introduced as “art.”
This extraordinary exhibition of 108 works in wood showcases the work of 86 different artists using 126 types of wood (both familiar and exotic) in ways that stagger the imagination. One piece contains more than 6,500 pieces of wood; another boasts 13,400. On view through June 21, the collection of bowls, vessels and vases mingles perfectly yet surprisingly with its completely abstract counterparts.
You’ll see wood that has been worked on by lathes, turned, carved, painted — even subjected to blowtorches and chainsaws by artists who push the boundaries of the medium, ever mindful of the unique characteristics of wood grain, color and texture. Selected woods include quilted maple, ponderosa pine, blue mahoe, Honduran rosewood, tulipwood, buckeye burl, locust and pistachio root. Many of the artists have exclusively used downed and damaged trees and some of the pieces include foreign materials like pigment, inlay, gilding and even ground-up comic books and deer antler.
The exhibit itself comprises six thematic sections: Perfected Form, Casting Shadows, Natural Edge, Going to Pieces, Enhancing the Surface and Echoes of Place. Each section explores complex forms and techniques while highlighting how the artists use their gifts to develop technically sophisticated compositions and even integrate narrative and storytelling into their work.
Massachusetts residents Bob and Lillian Montalto Bohlen donated 47 works from their personal collection to the #PEM. They have been tireless collectors of contemporary wood art for more than two decades and are at the forefront of promoting artistic woodworking as a fine art. Over the years, they have directly supported nearly two dozen wood artists, providing them with the freedom to take creative risks and deeply explore their practice.
I urge you not to miss this incredible exhibit. You will be charmed by the familiar, mystified by the abstract and blown away by the overall effect. Quilting in wood? The rare Squatopotomus? Story pieces by a Vietnamese artist who, as a child, saw the last helicopters pull out of Saigon without him? It’s all here. It’s audacious. Go.