Installation Artists Working with Wood (Part One)

Part I: The Aesthetic

Stephanie Cristello

Works by Rea.

Installation Arts are known for being intensely interactive, both in their building of a relationship to the space, as well as with the viewer. An installation can often dictate an audience’s behavior; it alters the immediate environment and forces us to conform to its rules. Artists working with installation, much like artists working in any medium, do so as a part of their larger practice; the installations themselves may only make up a component of their larger, interdisciplinary, body of work. However, Installation Art has become increasingly tricky, simply because there is the expectation that we will be able to view it within a designated space, while only certain gallerists accept large-scale proposals. So, does an artist in the process of building these environments plan site-specifically, or plan more generally with the intent of altering it for a space? Does it ever even leave the studio?

Three Chicago artists in particular come to mind- more specifically, those working with wood on a large-scale basis. This isn’t your average carpentry: roller coasters, mythical mountain landscapes and rocket ships. Here are three artists you need to know about, and their approach to Installation Arts.

How do you plan?

Works by Freiburg

“I don’t plan installations so much as decide to make pieces. In building certain pieces I have decided to incorporate installation as an element of the finished composition,” explains local artist Michael Rea, whose installation at EbersMoore Gallery Chicago is garnering much attention. “The last piece I made, Benita, for my recent show at EbersMoore, was designed to be site specific, and function both as a static object and as an installation.” Rea’s plans are in many ways intuitive, gathering from recognizable forms, he translates objects through the process of re-creation, “I like to just start building, and let the piece evolve as I work with it. This evolution usually continues through the installation process.”

“Typically, my process involves three stages,” says Chicago artist Conrad Freiburg as he methodically explains his installation developments, “the objects I make just kind of pop out of my brain. I’m always using things that are lying around.” Freiburg’s latest installation entitled Slipping Glimpser at Linda Warren Gallery, illustrates his process in all its material glory. Conceptual sources blend with disregarded objects to form a delicate bowling ball roller coaster, “my work up to that point had been dealing with cycles of creation and destruction and human powered mechanisms, probably some heartbreak in there too,” Freiburg muses on the structure of his piece. “One of the things I say a lot is that you can’t make something delicate and expect it not to break. To really understand a fine thing you must understand it as a charged moment, a Slipping Glimpse, dare I say.”

Read more about Freiburg in fellow CAM writer Jeriah Hildewine’s article on gallery representation.

Works by Kaczynski.

Sculptor and Installation artist Kelly Kaczynski’s work is rooted deeply in a materials-based practice. In planning these pieces, she sees the Installation and its relation to space as a collaborative process; the space and the objects within them (audience included) are able to inform one another, leaving no components inactivated, “They are not specific to the site in context or content, but rather respond to the parameters of the space. In doing so, because the installation or objects respond to the architectural parameters – dimension, height, thresholds, columns, etc – the viewer is positioned specifically in the way they navigate the work.” Kaczynski also addresses the interesting role of “history” in her Installation work; each time an installation is replicated in a new space, the work changes simply because the space changes. Almost like an edition in print, the original remains as the first existence of the piece, but is influenced by its constituent parts, “while the Installations may have a second and third incarnation in another venue, the original installment is the primary history.”

Why wood?

Works by Rea.

Freiburg uses wood as a conceptual tool, allowing the materiality to inform the concept. “With the Slipping Glimpser, I used Kentucky White Ash, which is both flexible and strong,” explains Freiburg on the decision of him using wood as his main installation material, “and just the fact of it being called ‘ash’ was appropriate to the meaning of temporality- a wood that is called its burnt state.” Freiburg worked similarly in his approach to the Great Daydream, where the elements are informed by this same ‘charged moment’, which in this case was an adaptation of the Declaration of Independence, “each of the boxes [was] a contained phrase of the revolutionary document. The original document literally caused kinetic motions, putting word into action.”

Rea’s use of materials aesthetically approaches the idea of function vs. object in his work, “I like the way raw wood remains unfinished in the eye of the viewer. It remains unpainted, incomplete. The wood itself swells or contracts depending on a given climate.” By leaving the wood to the circumstances of its environment, Rea is able to incorporate an element of chance into a heavily rendered process, “the wood is allowed to oxidize and age, often darkening as time goes on. I also enjoy the way wood, with regards to my subject matter, offers a contradiction in function. It renders the objects I create as props.”

“I use other materials when the work calls for it, so I do not restrict my work to wood, but I do enjoy it and find wood extremely flexible,” explains Kaczynski, whose choice to work with wood mirrors the facility in making such large-scale work, “I consider myself a builder not a craftsperson; wood offers options for me with both structure and meaning.” Like Freiburg, Kaczynski’s pieces heavily rely on the information that wood can provide to the conceptual framework of the Installation, “I’ve been using predominately either wood from the domestic construction trade or logs that come directly from the natural landscape. Both belong to a vernacular that serves as meaning in the work.” In Kaczynski’s work, the presence of wood serves to illustrate the naturally occurring image of a landscape, “whether in its raw state or in a treated state, I use the image of landscape in my work as kind of frame for interaction,” a frame which mirrors the natural and environmental interactions happening between the viewer and the piece itself.

In continuing with the Installation Arts series, Pt II will consist of these artists responses to the theoretical questions attached to the larger spectrum of Installation Arts.