Even an art enthusiast might be mystified by the relationship between a wood-turned teapot and a gourd-fashioned animal, but such is the nexus explored in “Out of the Ordinary: Selections from the Bohlen Wood Art and Fusfeld Folk Art Collection.”

Out of the Ordinary: Selections from the Bohlen Wood Art and Fusfeld Folk Art Collection

Through June 26, 2011
UMMA

“Out of the Ordinary” showcases contemporary woodturning works alongside 19th- and 20th-century folk art pieces. The exhibition space is divided into the Bohlen and Fusfeld collections, both of which, according to Senior Curator of Western Art Carole McNamara, were donated before UMMA’s renovation and expansion.

According to art history Ph.D. student and guest co-curator Kristine Ronan, the exhibition’s title reflects the collaborative vision of co-curators Joseph Proctor (associate curator of modern and contemporary art), Ruth Slavin (UMMA director of education) and McNamara.

“Part of that title — for these particular collections especially — is that these aren’t the kinds of works that are traditionally seen in a museum,” Ronan said. “Contemporary woodturning art is a very new collecting field, and it also has only in the last five to 10 years actually been in exhibitions and large museums, and so in that sense it’s not the ordinary museum show you would potentially see. And American folk art has a similar kind of story.”

In woodturning, artists place wood on a lathe — a machine that spins material on an axis — and use pressure to apply a tool (which can range from a chisel to a chainsaw, according to Ronan) to fashion designs as the wood spins. From this rotation are born all sorts of objects and art pieces. Although the featured works are technically contemporary — they were all created between 1994 and 2002 — the exhibition details the historical narrative of woodturning as an art form.

According to Ronan, the early 20th-century development of the personal, non-industrial lathe spurred the growth of American industrial arts education in the 1920s, which emphasized woodturning as a functional practice; first-generation artists churned out practical objects like plates and bowls. Later generations, using different forms like fire and more complicated lathes, stressed aesthetics and form over function.

One such later artist is Alain Mailland, whose earthy forms sometimes discard the traditional appearance of wood. His Stone Eater (2000), for example, is a round, vertically stacked coagulation of bulbous forms that, at first glance, looks more like stone or coral than the elm out of which it is fashioned.

Ronan cautions, though, that functional and aesthetic qualities aren’t mutually exclusive.

“(Woodturning) is an art form for some. It’s a play with the idea of function, that it can actually be used in a home, it’s just a very beautiful object to be used,” Ronan said. “But at the same time, some of these are so beautiful that people would not dare touch them, and so it kind of becomes a sculpture … in the house or where it’s owned.”

The Fusfeld collection, though smaller than the Bohlen according to McNamara, is expansive and diverse in its selected media, including folk paintings, wood carvings, drawings and the gourd sculptures of Minnie Black. The works vary in their pictorial representation, ranging from historical allusions (including a pen drawing of George Washington by Emma Martin) to scenes of rural America (like P.J. Hornberger’s By the Light of the Moon, a painting of children splashing in autumn leaves).

Much like its woodturning counterpart, the folk collection conveys the evolution of the folk movement and provokes a paradigm shift about folk art. Trained artists such as 19th-century painter Erastus Salisbury Field are featured, which according to Ronan dispels a perception of folk art as only the art of the everyday, untrained individual. Also displayed is 20th-century folk art. Ronan says the term “self-taught” artist emerged during this time, and that’s when artists begin to solicit galleries for feature.

“One of the appeals of folk art I think is that it is not that far removed from you or me, so the idea (emerged) that either we could learn to make it, we could make it eventually if we practice really hard, or we could afford to buy it perhaps and put it in our own home,” Ronan said.

So why is something so linked to the “everyday” experience considered “out of the ordinary”?

“I think that’s one of the reasons why these two discrete collections lend themselves nicely to a shared interpretive approach,” McNamara said. “I think the kind of dedicated vision, the kind of innovative vision and other concerns you were to find in great ‘high art’ you would also find in art that is self-taught or naïve.”

Not only is the exhibition linked through its deconstruction of traditionally held perceptions about higher, perhaps more difficult art, but also through its enhancement of the museum’s accessibility.

“The appeal of contemporary woodturning and again, folk art as well, is the idea that it breaks those stereotypes of what a museum actually can put on display,” Ronan said.

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