Renwick Gallery's 'A Revolution in Wood' reveals a medium transformed

By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 8, 2010; WE39

It would be difficult for almost any exhibition to live up to the word "revolutionary," but the Renwick Gallery's latest craft showcase lives up to the term, both literally and figuratively. On the most basic level, the description simply refers to the medium at the center of the spotlight: turned wood, or wood that has been shaped by a process that involves cutting into it while it rotates -- that is, revolves -- on a mechanical lathe. It's a great-looking show, with works that range from the pretty (William and Marianne Hunter's "Evening Blossom") to the ruggedly handsome (Todd Hoyer's "Ringed Series").

But "A Revolution in Wood: The Bresler Collection" also has a second meaning. There's something subversive going on here. If you're outside the craft community, you might not immediately recognize it.

The show celebrates the gift to the museum of 66 turned-wood objects from collectors Fleur and Charles Bresler. Most date from the 1990s, though a few were made at the tail end of the 1980s. The vast majority are vessels.

That's not just a reflection of the Breslers' taste. Wood turning has traditionally been a medium for making functional objects: bowls, chair legs, banisters, candlesticks and the like. It was conservative.

But something changed, and mostly since the 1970s. In the past 30 or 40 years, wood turning has gone from being the exclusive province of tableware and furniture makers to a sculptural medium of personal expression. You'll see some of that evolution -- if not revolution -- but only if you know what to look for.

A good place to start is Mark Sfirri's "Rejects From the Bat Factory."

The artist's witty, sculptural take on the baseball bat -- incorporating mutant, corkscrewed and almost tumorous variations on the iconic piece of sports equipment -- uses a technique stolen not from the Louisville Slugger factory, but from furniture making. Sfirri takes advantage of a process called "multi-axis turning." (Think of the turned-wood object like a spinning planet, but with more than one center of gravity.) In that way, he transforms the simple, symmetrical wooden spindle into an ornamental -- but in this case completely unusable -- object.

Speaking of unusable, you'll find several vessels . . . punctured by holes. One of them is Michael Peterson's "Bird House." (Note: He doesn't even call it a vase, which is what it most nearly resembles.) But Peterson's piece also marks another moment in wood turning history: It's more hand-carved than machine-turned.

The artist's minimal shaping lets the organic form of the wood come through.

One of the more dramatic pieces on view is David Ellsworth's "Patan," from the artist's "Solstice Series." A favorite artist of the Breslers, Ellsworth is known, among other things, for applying -- gasp! -- paint to his vessels. That had long been a no-no. You didn't desecrate the texture of the wood with anything.

It's a measure of how far wood turning has come that the paint-spattered surface of "Patan" hardly raises an eyebrow these days. It's actually kind of beautiful.

"A Revolution in Wood" compares the appearance of paint in Ellsworth's work to the day in 1965 that Bob Dylan decided to walk onstage of the Newport Folk Festival with an electric guitar, instead of his familiar acoustic. At the time, purists were up in arms. Nowadays, of course, the whole thing seems quaintly old-fashioned.

But that's how revolutions work, isn't it? Not by gentle nudging, but by spinning the world around.

A Revolution in Wood: The Bresler Collection Through Jan. 30 at the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, 17th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW (Metro: Farragut West). 202-633-1000 (TDD: 202-633-5285). Through January, Area woodturners will give free lathe demonstrations in the gallery every Tuesday from noon to 1 p.m. and on the second Saturday of the month from 2 to 4 p.m. Hours: Daily 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Admission: Free.

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