A Revolution in Wood Opens at the Renwick Gallery

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When Fleur Bresler first stepped foot in the Renwick Gallery in 1986, she had to restrain herself from snatching the turned wood bowls on display at the time. Bresler was astounded at the simple beauty and elegance of the wood pieces, and immediately started her own collection along with her husband, Charles Bresler.

Decades later, those 66 pieces, gifted to the Renwick in 2003, chronicle the rapid evolution and expansion of wood turning as an art form. They are the subject of the Renwick Gallery's new exhibit, "A Revolution in Wood: The Collection of Fleur and Charles Bresler."

"Now, we've come full circle back to the Renwick Gallery," said Bresler at a media preview on Tuesday.

Using burning, carving and painting, the artists have reinvented the millenia-long tradition of wood turning, which involves chiseling blocks of wood as they rotate at high speeds in a lathe.  (To see for yourself, the Renwick will have lathe demonstrations on most Tuesdays and Saturdays through January 25. There is also a video podcast on the museum's Web site.)

One eye-catching piece in the exhibit is artist David Ellsworth's Patan from the Solstice Series, which has been designated the "Dylan goes electric" moment in his otherwise purist career. The wooden bowl was turned, cut, burned, and painted with metallic fabric paints in psychadelic color patterns.

Vermont artist Michelle Holzapfel used all local wood for her Table Bracelet, a chain of bowls and candlesticks meant to adorn the table as if it were a woman's wrist. The same artist produced Bresler's favorite piece in the collection, a vaguely heart-shaped receptacle with carved hooks at the top and a spalted back (spalting is a pattern caused by fungi). "It's quiet, elegant, and captures the nature of wood," says Bresler.

The 4,000-year-old lathe is widely considered the oldest mechanized tool in the world. Early wood turners powered the lathe by foot, taking days or weeks to craft a single object, until the advent of steam power towards the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. During the late 18th and 19th centuries, factories used wood turning technology to mass produce furnishings and bowls.

According to curator Nicholas Bell, the images of industrialization that became associated with wood turning may explain why artists of the time weren't initially attracted to the medium. Although a small group in the United States began creating art out of turned wood in the 1940s, it wasn't until the 1970s that artists looking to break away from the art establishment of the time began exploring the possibilities of the craft. "You had artists take a step back from society to ask, 'What's a way in which I can create art without people having preconceived notions of what art is?'" says Bell. Wood turning wasn't taught at art schools, and it wasn't shown in galleries. This drew those looking for something beyond the sometimes stifling erudition of the art world.

It is not hard to appreciate the natural patterns, cracks and holes some of the artists have revealed using hunks of wood. Local wood turner Eliot Feldman, who gave a lathe demonstration at the exhibit preview, recalled Michelangelo's philosophy that the sculptor's task was to set free the forms already trapped inside the stone. The same could be said of the turned wood in this exhibit. With each rotation of the lathe and each wood shaving removed, a new and interesting impurity already present in the wood emerges.

"A Revolution in Wood: The Collection of Fleur and Charles Bresler" is open today through January 11, 2011.

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