How Much Wood

Detail from  When I am 64  by Laura Petrovich-Cheyney.

Detail from When I am 64 by Laura Petrovich-Cheyney.

Process: Wood IV

 Philadelphia Sculpture Gym Gallery, Philadelphia, PA

I stopped by this show with a friend after work on a Thursday.  We were about to eat pizza and see a play, but first, my buddy Jen insisted, we must see the show about wood.  I waited outside on Frankford Avenue for a few minutes, Jen was on her way, and was immediately welcomed inside by the people watching the gallery that night.  I’ll admit that this was my very first impression of the show, before I even saw it.  The attitude was, get in here.  It’s cold outside, and we have art inside and places to sit down.

The show featured several projects by different artists, all utilizing wood in some way and demonstrating impeccable craft.  There’s an opportunity here, I think, to work through some associations that can come to mind when people imagine wood as a material.  The way most people encounter wood on a daily basis is not as a fine art material: it’s as a building material, a floor that needs to be dusted or the insides of a wall that needs insulation, an exposed beam in a refurbished apartment, stacks and sheets of dusty material in trucks or home improvement stores.  When I think of wood, I think of it as something rough, something that gave me splinters as a kid, the material I had to cut through in art school using intimidating machinery.

This show reveals examples of the endless possibilities inherent in wood, the emotive and visual qualities it can take on, and moments when it can become vulnerable or even delicate.  Karen Aumann’s piece Nymph explores the tension between delicate and rough, built and natural by combining a split open maple log with a ceramic pipe, an LED light, and a small piece of ironwork.  The piece does a good job of mixing up your expectations, and playing off associations we bring to certain materials; a ceramic pipe splitting open a wooden log seems impossible, and at first glance the small iron piece attached to the log doesn’t even appear to be made of another material at all.  The dim, blue light in the bottom recess of the piece lends an almost spooky quality, something that hits against the mythological content of the piece’s title but is, ultimately, manufactured by a light bulb.

Alex Schechter’s piece Relequary features wood objects arranged and determined by an algorithmic system; the brightly colored, almost playful looking objects spill out onto the floor close to the entrance.  Each one is an object you would love to pick up and take home; they are lovingly crafted, beautifully painted, and seem at home on the floor, not so delicate that you worry they will be damaged by shoes or dust.  Like most twenty somethings, the algorithms I encounter on a daily basis are those embraced by social media sites that curate our experience online, the ones that determine images we see and the stories we read and the people we interact with.  The digital algorithm is supposed to be invisible, but this piece instead offers a wooden one, right by the door, one that you have to physically walk around to navigate the space.

Laura Petrovich-Cheney’s When I am 64 embodies the emotive quality wood can capture; the piece utilizes salvaged wood from Hurricane Sandy to create a patchwork, painterly wooden combine that hangs on the wall like a quilt that’s meant for show.  The design of the piece breaks down into a grid, and each unit features colored wood that is worn by varying degrees and functions like its own framed mini painting.  The piece is fashioned out of wood that looks like it could have been a building material, siding that flew from the side of a house or building, and there is a loss and sadness that is associated with this the minute you read about the material’s origin on the label of the piece.  It packs a powerful emotive punch, but the piece itself is brightly colored and beautifully crafted, transforming the debris altered by the violence of a powerful storm into something else. 

This transformative power is evident throughout this small group show in Philadelphia, a strong showing of talented artists and proof that a two by four or sheet of plywood can be cut, sanded, and sculpted into something else entirely, an object that stops you in your tracks on a Thursday night and makes you forget about everything for a couple of seconds, the stresses from your day job and emails on your cell phone, even pizza.