In Grain:
Contemporary Work in Wood

September 15 – December 18, 2015
East Gallery

Wood, readily available throughout the world and easier to shape than metal or stone, is one of the oldest sculptural mediums. Yet artists still find inspiration in this humble material, whether looking back to traditional forms and techniques, or employing it in strikingly innovative ways. With the exhibition, In Grain: Contemporary Work in Wood, the Fleming presents a diverse group of international artists, many of whom are working in Vermont, a place with a long history of wood carving in craft and art.

Born in the Netherlands, longtime Vermont resident Ria Blaas carves, chisels, saws, and burns wood, gradually working it until “the sculpture … reveal[s] itself.” The powerful human figures that emerge evoke sculptural traditions of cultures from around the world. Professor Emeritus of Studio Art at Middlebury College Eric Nelson has created a suite of 365 small sculptures, each unique, that when mounted together appear like a cast of fantastical characters or the letters of an invented alphabet. Nori Morimoto, who moved to Waterbury, Vermont, in 1987, uses native woods for his wall works, which he chisels and saws into undulating forms both organic and geometric.

Other Vermont artists use recycled wood, revealing something of the material’s previous life in their new creations. Ross Smart constructs architectural structures from found wood, cigar boxes, and other detritus. Duncan Johnson collects wood from landfills and construction sites, leaving the original paint or varnish intact and assembling the pieces into large panels, some with seamless surfaces, others layered and complex. Clark Derbes’s 12-sided wood sculptures are painted to create the illusion of three-dimensionality on two-dimensional surfaces.

One aspect of contemporary art in wood is the uneasy tension between the natural and the manmade. A recent graduate of the Massachusetts College of Art and Design, A.M. Disher creates sculptures from burls and other twisted pieces of wood, painting them to look like distorted bits of flesh and installing them in provocative ways. In contrast, the enameled surfaces and elegant curves of Greg Mencoff’s sculptures are seductively smooth, while the edges reveal his raw materials, often a mix of fine-grained basswood and plywood, an industrially-produced composite. Assembling intricately-cut rings of wood in both organic and mechanical shapes, California-based Joshua Abarbanel creates wall sculptures that equally resemble coral reefs, the namesake of his series Reefs, and the gears of a clock.

The human figure, as it has been for centuries, is a rich subject for artists working in wood. Bruno Walpoth comes from a region of Italy with a centuries-long wood carving tradition, which he continues with exquisite life-like portraits and nudes.

Whether shaping their sculptures with a chainsaw or a laser, creating realistic, abstract, or symbolic forms, these contemporary artists bring compelling approaches to the medium of wood, making clear the enduring draw of this elemental material.