Whimsical Bentwood and Screenprints on View at Woodson Art Museum

WAUSAU, WISCONSIN: Delightful designs – from the undulating lines of bentwood furniture and sculpture to Charley Harper’s playful, stylized images of animals – abound throughout three exhibitions on view April 13 through June 16 at the Woodson Art Museum.

“Torqued & Twisted: Bentwood Today” and “Functional & Abstract: New Work by Jason Ramey” feature bentwood designed to be functional furniture and abstract sculpture. “Beguiled by the Wild: The Art of Charley Harper” highlights the bold colors and geometric shapes of Harper’s animal images, infused with light-hearted humor.

Artist residencies demystify process, demonstrating wood-bending with a steam box, April 13-14, and printmaking with a steamroller, May 4.

Torqued & Twisted: Bentwood Today

Elegant, unusually shaped bentwood artworks – rockers, benches, and sculptures formed through steaming, laminating, or greenwood bending – comprise “Torqued & Twisted: Bentwood Today.” Artists use steam and hot water to soften and then shape the wood into delicate, graceful lines – working quickly before the wood returns to its naturally hardened state. Laminating involves thin, flexible layers of wood joined by adhesives and clamped against a form until the adhesive cures, holding the layers into the new configurations. Greenwood bending uses freshly cut saplings – often willow. Greenwood, inherently flexible because of its high moisture content, is bent by hand and held in place until it dries and holds the new curved form.

The artists represented in “Torqued & Twisted,” masters of their craft, push the limits of what wood can do. By refining their own repertoire of techniques that yield distinct artworks, they challenge audiences to reconsider the angular and traditional characteristics of woodwork.

Nine U.S. furniture makers and sculptors create contemporary designs that both borrow from and build upon various historical traditions. Matthias Pliessnig draws from the rib and plank boat-building approach. Clifton Monteith offers stellar examples of willow or twig bending. Mike Jarvi “unfolds” his furniture from within the plank in a brilliant, almost origami-like motion. After the Industrial Revolution, German furniture maker Michael Thonet designed his bentwood rocker in the late 1860s; it remains a furniture icon.

“Torqued & Twisted” was organized by The Center for Craft, Creativity & Design, Hendersonville, North Carolina, and was co-curated by Tom Loeser, University of Wisconsin-Madison professor and artist and Katie Lee, of the Center for Craft, Creativity & Design.

Functional & Abstract: New Work by Jason Ramey

Ramey’s work in “Functional & Abstract” includes useful, contemporary furniture as well as conceptual sculpture that creates a metaphor for human existence within a defined, familiar space. “Lathchair,” for example, wrapped with pieces of steam-bent pine lath strips reminiscent of those found in the plaster walls of historic buildings, directly faces a lath wall that seems to envelope the chair.

During the exhibitions’ opening weekend, April 13-14, University of Wisconsin-Madison woodworking lecturer Jason Ramey demonstrates how he uses steam to create bentwood furniture and sculpture during his Wood-Bending Experience artist residency that includes a Saturday workshop and a Sunday afternoon gallery walk.

Like the wood he shapes and forms, Jason Ramey’s career has followed a winding path to the University of Wisconsin-Madison. While studying psychology at Purdue and working in a psychiatric unit at a mental hospital, a patient noticed Jason’s sketches and urged him to apply to the nearby Herron School of Art and Design. Jason earned a bachelor’s degree in furniture design from Herron in 2008 and a master of fine arts degree in 2012 from UW-Madison, where he now teaches woodworking classes in the Art Department’s wood and furniture design program. “It taught me to listen,” Jason said of the conversation with the patient that altered his career trajectory.

Jason recently was among twelve artists to receive a 2012 Outstanding Student Achievement in Contemporary Sculpture award from The International Sculpture Center. His work was featured in the October, 2012 issue of “Sculpture” magazine and is on display at Grounds For Sculpture in Hamilton, New Jersey.

Beguiled by the Wild: The Art of Charley Harper

Distinct, geometric shapes and bold colors in Charley Harper’s serigraphs and illustrations of animals highlight his signature style: minimal realism. By stripping away extraneous details, this prolific graphic designer (1922-2007) effectively distilled and revealed an animal’s gestures, vigor, and personality by using straight and curved lines to describe flat, hard-edged shapes. “When I look at a wildlife or nature subject, I don’t see feathers, fur, scapulars, or tail coverts – none of that,” Harper said. “I see exciting shapes, color combinations, patterns, textures, fascinating behavior, and endless possibilities for making interesting pictures.”

Although Harper infused playful humor into his compositions and sprinkled puns throughout artwork titles, he also often incorporated conservation messages that packed a punch. He especially was concerned with the problem of suburban sprawl – of commercial development infringing on animal habitats and ecosystems. Well known as the illlustrator of the children’s book “The Golden Book of Biology,” Harper contributed his unique, geometric style to a wide range of publications, interpretive displays, and “bio” posters for many nature-based organizations, including the National Park Service and Cincinnati Zoo.

When the famed designer Todd Oldham published “Charley Harper: An Illustrated Life” in 2007, he generated international interest for Harper’s work. The book helped new audiences recognize Harper as a visionary midcentury modernist, characterized by the stylized, uncluttered, colorful, and geometric-shaped precision of his work. “Beguiled by the Wild” was organized by the Virginia Living Museum in Newport News, Virginia.

Artist Sherrie York incorporates a Harper-inspired theme into a relief-printing extravaganza April 30 through May 5 during her artist residency, Let the Good Times Steamroll. York directs the oversized printing on bed-sheet-size fabric – via Kevin Matzke’s steamroller in the Museum parking lot! – of woodcuts created by more than 100 area high school students. Inspired by Charley Harper’s bold animal graphics, students designed their woodblocks around the theme Wild About Wisconsin. During public programs and schoolchildren’s visits to the Museum throughout the week, York demonstrates her process and participants print using small linocuts. Visit www.lywam.org for details about programs and upcoming events.

A Wood-Bending Experience and Let the Good Times Steamroll funding comes from a Community Arts Grant from the Community Foundation of North Central Wisconsin, with funds from the Wisconsin Arts Board, Community Foundation, and the B.A. & Esther Greenheck Foundation.

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