Against the Grain: Pushing the Limits of Wood

Wood is one of the oldest and most used art materials known to mankind, long used in African, Pre-Columbian and Oceanic art.

Wood is a medium with a lot of possibilities, but it’s also not unusual for the medium to “refuse to” yield to something it’s been asked to do, and the end result can often be surprising, as this is a live material but also a viable contemporary medium.

As furniture manufacturers, we can claim with certainty that wood (some types of wood especially) are hard to handle, and that’s why excellent craftsmanship is needed to translate this raw material into beautifully designed everyday objects. In recent years, wood became easier to manipulate with digital tools for design and fabrications, with CAD programs, CNC machines, and laser cutters that expanded possibilities of shaping wood.

However, the most innovative artists working with wood from the postwar era until today aren’t necessarily taking advantage of technology. Some are still honing the traditional woodcraft techniques and are even using the old methods of sculpting wood that date back to the Renaissance.

Below are some artists, designers, and architects who are pushing the limits of wood despite (and because of) its challenges.

Helen Frankenthaler’s woodcuts

There are no rules, that is one thing I say about every medium, every picture … that is how art is born, that is how breakthroughs happen. Go against the rules or ignore the rules, that is what invention is about. – Helen Frankenthaler, Against the grain

Helen Frankenthaler is maybe not the obvious choice when talking about wood as a medium, but her woodcuts show a strong relationship with the material. Helen created her first woodcuts at ULAE, Long Island around 1976. while investigating woodcut and lithography medium. With some printmaking experience, she pushed her creative limits and transposed her bold gestures from canvas to woodcut.

Even then woodcut was considered to be a notoriously rigid and difficult medium that couldn’t be further from Helen’s gestural and spontaneous painting, she embraced it as a challenge – determined not only to learn its language – but to master it.

Martin Puryear

Martin Puryear began his career in the 1970s alongside other members of the Post-Minimalist generation. Working primarily in wood, he stayed true to manual skill and traditional building methods. His sculptures are rich with psychological and intellectual references, examining issues of identity, culture, and history.

Working in wood and bronze, among other media, his reductive technique and meditative approach challenge the physical and poetic boundaries of his materials.

HG-Architecture, Part to Whole, Exhibition, MMCA(National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art), Seoul Korea,2014

”Everything in nature is made up of components. It starts from basic components like atoms and molecules, and grows to bigger components like tissues and organs in order to construct a ‘live’ body. The artificial environment is quite the same. It all starts with basic components like points and lines, and grows to surface and finally construct a space.” – HG Architecture

A few years ago, the Museum of Art and Design organized an exhibition “Against the Grain” that explored the emerging trends in contemporary woodworking art.

Many artists and designers were inspired by the wood’s natural state as trees and created works that draw upon the texture, patterns, and grain. Additionally, environmental issues were woven throughout the exhibition as increased ecological consciousness is implicit in the work of all contemporary woodworkers.

Sarah Oppenheimer

The artist Sarah Oppenheimer sees her interventions as catalysts for sharpening awareness of the spaces in which they take place.

She is interested in the exhibition space itself, which are determined by architectural conventions, industrial norms and ideological tenets, that are at the same time to a large extent unnoticed.

Sebastian Errazuriz

The Wave Cabinet by Artist and designer Sebastian ErraZuriz is the new creation of his series of functional sculptures, which embody his translation of craftsmanship and mastery of material into fine art. 

The Wave cabinet opens delicately with each individual slat pulling along the following much like a paper fan. With multiple configurations which allow for various options of aperture, the artist has re-engineered the familiar process of opening and closing, into rotating and undulating adaptations.

Ben Butler, Unbounded, Exhibition at the Rice Galler

Artist Ben Butler created an installation consisting of thousand of small sticks for Rice Gallery in Houston, Texas. “Unbounded” is a the site-specific sculpture was made using poplar wood, which the artist arranged into a complex structure.

“The title of the installation ‘Unbounded’ alludes to the notion that its form has no defined boundary, that it is untamed and fills the space according to its own logic.” 

Rachel Beach

The artist Rachel Beach first learned woodworking by building painting panels, and later by working construction. Her interest flows from a practical connection to the material, and her work is often relying on architecture, as she is interested in transitional elements that make our environment.

“I like wood’s factual, elemental relationship to building and manual labor,” she says. “It’s historical and human in scale; one human can build one thing out of wood.” 

We hope we inspired you with the above mention artists who share with us the love for wood.