The language of wood
In anticipation of 2017’s Collect, we’ve asked a group of gallery owners to tell us about their favourite material. Previous exhibitor Sarah Myerscough explains her love of wood
As a child I never walked past an antique shop or gallery without a visit. My mother’s obsession for antique furniture instilled in me a passion for wood, for rich patinas, hand carving and curvaceous form. For two significant birthdays I was gifted a Georgian dresser and a maple-veneered writing box, which continue to enrich my life today. When my hand slides over a richly patinated, cracked, scratched or chipped wood surface – from an old church door to a rustic spoon – it also experiences the passing of time. The tactility of contemporary wooden sculpture, a turned wood object or a piece of furniture holds a fascination for me, and evokes a sensual and emotive experience.
By chance, a visit 10 years ago to Hana and Brian Smouha’s London home, to hang a John Hoyland painting, opened my eyes to the possibilities of the medium in contemporary art and design. Their extraordinary turned and carved wood collection, and their support, inspired the first international wood show at my gallery. It was then that I started my own journey of discovery.
Wood has a life force of its own, which it breathes into a piece through the hand of the artist-maker. The process is akin to a creative collaboration – the wood already has a story to tell. The formal qualities of the material, the patterned burl, the density of the grain and its colour appeal to some artist-makers, while others respond to its flaws – the cracks, the spalting, the twisted forms.
Artists Gareth Neal and Joseph Walsh control the wood through structured design or highly sculpted form, byusing cutting-edge technologies, or as with Walsh’s work, the exceptional skill of a small team of international craftsmen. Others such as Nic Webb and Ernst Gamperl embrace the imperfections in the wood to define their work. Webb uses the process of controlled burning to create form, while Gamperl turns wood when it’s green, to allow it to have the final word through the drying process as it twists and contorts. Both ways of making speak of the fragility, but also the strength and character of the material through very different creative journeys, and both leave the indelible signature of the artist-maker on the resulting piece.
I feel contemporary art and design can be predictable and dry and the process of making by hand and materiality in art work is worryingly scarce. The joy of creating through craftsmanship and working with organic material is a visceral experience that is communicated directly to the viewer.
The exceptional wooden sculpture of contemporary artist David Nash, for example, has a raw materiality defined by dynamic form: wood may be be burnt, axed, stripped, splintered and chiselled. Nash has an intuitive, almost primeval feeling for the material where the creative process can either be delicate and loving but also brutal and thrilling. He talks about his material as ‘damp and dry/burnt and buried/wood is given/we do not make it/in air it cracks/in fire it burns/in water floats/in earth returns’.
In these words one strongly senses the crucial role of nature in art: the artist highlights one’s pure and direct relationship to it. Indeed, in a culture increasingly estranged from the natural world, this connection with the material can be understood as a holistic approach to life, an approach that we, as an urban species, are somehow lacking.
A story once told to me in Seoul, by a guide of the city’s historic furniture museum, spoke of how a Korean family would plant a sapling in the garden to mark the birth of a daughter; then, when she married, the tree was cut down and crafted into a wooden chest of drawers, to take with her through her married life. What better way to connect with nature, craftsmanship and design?
Sarah Myerscough Gallery, London, W1.