“Wood was always the ultimate modernist material, embodying the ability for direct carving and a direct approach to material,” says Lowery Stokes Sims, a curator at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York. So when researching works for a new show, she was struck by how ripe wood was for unorthodox transformations in the hands of younger generations. Sims found that artists and designers are altering or referencing wood through “mimicry, assemblage, opulence, and whimsy,” approaches that are “a bit cheeky in a postmodern way,” she says. Starting March 19, the creations of these innovators will be on view at the museum in “Against the Grain: Wood in Contemporary, Art, Craft and Design.”
For their contribution, Roccapina V Chair (2012), Ian Spencer and Cairn Young of the British design collective Yard Sale Project fuse the natural and digital worlds. Using computer-aided technology to make hundreds of rectangular wooden fragments, the duo assembled a seat with a pixelated-looking yet perfectly smooth surface. “I wanted to try to mimic the chaos found within nature,” says Spencer.
Others provocatively play with our expectations of wood as a utilitarian material. For his “Smoke” series, Dutch design phenom Maarten Baas takes iconic furniture pieces—such as a 1992 Cappellini Chair designed by Marc Newson—and strategically torches them until they become charred and often unusable but still esthetically viable. Courtney Smith, meanwhile, reconstructs furniture with partitions and blocks so that it falls shy of being functional.
The show, which will travel to the Museum of Art Fort Lauderdale in the fall, also includes a few non-wood works that imitate the patterns or surfaces of wood. Eric Souther’s Search Engine Vision “Chair” (2009) comprises 1,000 video clips—found from a YouTube search for the keyword “chair”—that play in a grid across the screen and then morph into the shape of a single chair. In a twist on trompe l’oeil art, Judith Belzer paints abstractions of different bark textures, while Alison Elizabeth Taylor uses marquetry to form realist “paintings” of wood-based imagery such as trees, planks, and houses.
Taylor got into marquetry after visiting the Studiolo from the Ducal Palace in Gubbio (ca. 1479–82), an illusionistic Renaissance room made entirely from inlaid wood, at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. She is returning the medium to the realm of high art. “Wood inlay’s checkered history in Western culture is one of a regal beginning, followed by a long slow descent into kitsch,” she says. “A medium that had been reserved for kings and popes is now found at state fairs and flea markets.”