These days our basic furniture needs are met very economically by factories, so if you are making furniture the reason is usually a personal challenge, a desire to work with one’s hands, and a desire to push the envelope of what can be made with wood. This entry is about someone who’s really pushing the envelope.
Some time ago I caught an exhibit of work by carver David Esterly, at the W. M. Brady Gallery on 80th Street. I had seen pictures David’s work many times in Woodcarving Magazine and was eager to see the show.
The exhibit was carefully and leisurely laid out in several rooms so that you can enjoy the pieces without distraction. The pictures I have seen of David’s work just don’t do his work justice. The carvings are generally bigger than what I expected and all the carvings have a sense of hyper realism. It’s not a real bouquet of flowers, it is a perfect bouquet of flowers. In his sculpture of vegetables, the arrangement of everything is perfect. Even imperfections like a caterpillar eating a leaf is done elegantly.
By coincidence the artist himself happened to be in the gallery when we visited, so chatted about this and that. I asked David if he worked from actual flowers, fruits, and if he mocked up the pieces before he actually carved them. He doesn’t. He draws them in Illustrator and once he is happy with his design he goes from the drawings directly to carving wood. Not being constrained by the reality of a mock-up, David has the freedom to do with carving what artists or designers can do with drawings. He is freed from the physical constraints of how actual reality looks like.
His approach to realism is also very much grounded in the physical limitations of the detail that limewood (which is what he primarily carves) can take and the sense of what detail we can see. The gallery hung the pieces at normal “gallery height” but most of David’s work was borrowed for this exhibition from various private collections and many of the works are designed to be mounted higher on a wall and viewed from below. In general the detail of a lot of the pieces are meant to be absorbed from a few feet away, not examined under a magnifying glass.
There are a few carved carving tools mounted in a few pieces which have handles that are stippled to emulate ash. It’s a very convincing look, and from a few feet away the tool handles all look like ash. The carved drapery of one piece has that fuzziness to it that you get on fabric. But the leaves are mostly plain with very few if any veins or texture to them. I think this is because from a few feet away you would not really see the texture, and what you register is the leafiness of them and the delicacy of plain flower petals. Fabric and tools have the detailing of texture so we register it as fabric.
This approach to carving in itself is very interesting. One of the absolute benchmarks of modern sculpture is that it isn’t realistic at all. And of course at first glance at Esterly’s works it is realistic and can be easily dismissed by a lot of modern art critics as “craft” rather than “art”. And then of course there is the school of criticism that dismisses this type of work as “decorative art”. And of course in the modern world of art schools by and large, craft isn’t taught, which immediately puts this sort of work as “outsider art” even if most of the time that term is used to describe more primitive works.
The level of carving skill needed to create these works is pretty high. The reaction of everyone who sees David’s pieces for the first time is “OMG how amazing is that”. It’s the same feeling you get when you look at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, or some finely engraved suit of armor at the Met.
It’s easy to be blindsided by the craft and miss the art. And of course we are only seeing the pieces for a few minutes in a gallery. David’s work is almost all created for residences where the homeowners live day in and day out with the pieces. I think after living with these pieces for a little while, after the amazement about the craft of the pieces wears off, that the art will sink in and work will be enjoyed even more.
This “Tools & Craft” section is provided courtesy of Joel Moskowitz, founder of Tools for Working Wood, the Brooklyn-based catalog retailer of everything from hand tools to Festool; check out their online shop here. Joel also founded Gramercy Tools, the award-winning boutique manufacturer of hand tools made the old-fashioned way: Built to work and built to last.