Local artists explore and respond to permanent collection at Center for Art in Wood

For an exhibition as robust as “Other Selections: Local Artists Respond to the Museum Collection” at the Center for Art in Wood, its name is both literal and surprisingly modest. The uncomplicated title is useful, however, for allowing the creations of the 18 Philadelphia-based artists participating in this show speak for themselves, and the inclusions certainly constitute an impressive assortment. Since none of these individuals work primarily in wood, their dialogue with the Center’s permanent collection is all the more unpredictable, and the result is a testament to multidisciplinary thought and improvisational style. Each artist in the show selected one or more pieces from the museum and utilized them as points of departure for assembling responses in their media of choice. We find ceramics, prints, video installations and a number of multimedia works that contrast and mimic the wooden objects discovered in the collection with conceptual zeal.

Steven and Debra Gray, "Kaleidescope."
Joanna Platt, "Phantom Limb."
Marc Blumthal, video footage from "Untitled Portrait (Protect Me From What I Want)."
Walter Balliet, "Lidded Bowl," Jake Brubaker, "Saffron Container," and Frank E. Cummings III, "Nature in Transition."
Terri Saulin Frock, selections from "Thin Cities."
Timothy Belknap, top of "Last Gasp at Being."
Timothy Belknap, bottom of "Last Gasp at Being."

Steven and Debra Gray, “Kaleidescope.” Inspired by a wooden kaleidoscope created by Steven and Debra Gray, Joanna Platt saw in the abstract, mirrored patterns a connection to the wood itself. The patterns of wood grains and knotholes on a piece of plywood are often taken for granted – peripheral shapes that fade into the entirety of the panel – but Platt set out to make them the focal point instead. On the wall, a flat, mostly unaltered slice of plywood hangs in contrast to the more traditionally beautiful wooden items that call the Center for Art in Wood home. Joanna Platt, “Phantom Limb.” Platt’s “Phantom Limb” is easily overlooked in its unassuming exterior, but upon closer inspection, one of the knotholes on its surface contains a tiny lens and video monitor. Not only wishing to accentuate the simple charms of wobbly wood grains, the looping video of gently swaying pine branches calls to mind the knot’s origin. Having once been an extension of this former tree, complete with an intricate system of photosynthetic, energy-absorbing mechanisms, it becomes clear that even the most ordinary parts of the world around us are often laden with mind-boggling layers of complexity. Resting languidly inside a tall case constructed out of one-way mirror glass, Marc Blumthal actually includes his inspiration from the museum as part of his installation. The John Grass Wood Turning Company that eventually transitioned into the Center as we know it today, was at one time a major producer of police billy clubs. These weapons are a far cry from the placid artwork that now resides here, but its memory remains in the artifacts left behind. Marc Blumthal, video footage from “Untitled Portrait (Protect Me From What I Want).” In the wake of a growing national discussion about police militarization, brutality and profiling, this unexceptional stick takes on considerable baggage. Placed behind glass that makes it nearly impossible to see, the billy club seems protected and hidden away from visitors as much as the police activity that occurs behind closed doors. This lack of transparency, if you will, is also tempered by a closed circuit camera which watches the interior of the case unremittingly. Calling to mind the ubiquity of surveillance, both legal and otherwise, it also provides us with our only clear view of the inside. Disconcertingly, Blumthal’s monitor displays a recording of the club and not a live feed… Walter Balliet, “Lidded Bowl,” Jake Brubaker, “Saffron Container,” and Frank E. Cummings III, “Nature in Transition.” Each of Terri Saulin Frock’s “Thin Cities” draw from three delicate, wooden containers by Walter Balliet, Jake Brubaker and Frank E. Cummings III. Her process of throwing and adorning ceramic vessels bears a striking resemblance to these entities formed out of a vastly different substance, and without altering her own approach to art making very much at all, she manages to draw parallels across the divide. “Nature in Transition” by Cummings in particular is reflected in Frock’s forms, which tend to splay out at their peaks with twig-like extensions and rough-hewn edges, while their bottoms often remain smooth and solid. Raised atop her signature metal and concrete pedestals, Frock also includes wooden bocce balls and small planks for bases that complement the stony stands and porcelain structures with the material they reference. Terri Saulin Frock, selections from “Thin Cities.” Tim Belknap was struck by the futuristic visions he discovered in the collection. His impression of works by Michael Mocho and Dennis Stewart was that they imagined a sort of optimistic view of the future, without any of the dystopian strife so often found in science fiction. In order to make up for this apparent oversight of the sinister, Belknap decided to praise the villain, or at least the antihero with his piece “Last Gasp at Being.” Timothy Belknap, top of “Last Gasp at Being.” A monolithic railroad tie-like column of wood sticks straight up into the air, a rounded rock attached to the top with metal stilts, and a raven or crow facsimile atop that. The foreboding image of the raven has been a dark omen well before, and certainly since Edgar Allen Poe’s famous poem, and here it appears like the mastermind of the operation. At the bottom of the pillar, a black-and-white spiral acts like a brainwashing tool indicative of less scrupulous means for technology than ideas like liberty or the common good. Timothy Belknap, bottom of “Last Gasp at Being.” Fourteen other artists process the permanent collection of the Center for Art in Wood in their own ways, revealing subtleties and revelations about the artwork that not only add depth to the originals, but initiate the making of fresh objects and the stimulation of new ideas. The exhibit will be on display through July 18. The Center for Art in Wood is located at 141 N. 3rd Street, Philadelphia; 215-923-8000;