Elements: Wood

Elements: Wood

18 November - 17 December 2011

Ian Guthridge, Matthew Harding, Scott Mitchell, Adrian Potter, Richard Raffan, David Upfill-Brown and Edward Collett.

Matthew HardingPoise chair, 2007, laminated brimsply and monofilament. Photographer: Jeremy Dillon

Negotiations From Time Past by Rodney Hayward

       Eventually everything connects - people, ideas, objects. The quality of the            connections is the key to quality per se.

Charles Eames, 100 Quotes by Charles Eames (2007)

In responding to this exhibition, I sift through the archaeology of memory, the objects are layered with connections like Troy or Mycenae or Jericho. I am not neutral, I know each of the exhibitors and share coincidences that were, and are, of importance in the baffling and circuitous processes of being a craftsman.

Forty years takes us back to 1971 and the creation of both the national Craft advocacy body, the Crafts Council of Australia and locally the Craft Association in the ACT (Craft ACT: Craft and Design Centre). This cultural formalisation of the Crafts was a flow-on from the massive social upheavals in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Through these times flowed disillusionment with society and a search for new, alternative politico-personal values.

Within this counterculture, the Crafts represented a vehicle for individual assertion and expression. However, to invent a future requires effort to discover a past and create a present. The generative forces for a new sense of exploration and experimentation within woodcraft practice came to Australia through both young craftsmen and educational opportunities. The ACT was uniquely enriched from both sources. In looking at the names within this exhibition, the focal role of the Canberra School of Art (no Australian National University School of Art) is explicit.

And there is something else here … for wood, the formative educational and studio practice model for Australia through the 1980s was widely taken from the Dorset-based John Makepeace School for Craftsmen in Wood at Parnham House, which opened in 1977. In the ACT, Makepeace's Parnham was more than simply appropriation of a philosophy. The lineage of Parnham was physically transplanted through former students like Chris McElhinny (1981) and David Upfill-Brown (1982); former tutors like Richard Raffan (1982/Mittagong), and George Ingham (1982). The latter was appointed by Udo Sellbach to create the Wood and Furniture Workshop of the Canberra School of Art. Chris McElhinny would later join him there as a lecturer.

Lineages are the carriers of passion, knowledge, stories and wisdom that have been discovered and accumulated. At the School of Art, Sellbach set in place something of the lineage of the Bauhaus. Wood was released from its enthrallment to tradition: the future as Sellbach saw it, was the "exploration of the aesthetic possibilities of this truly traditional material". There were now new dynamics of form to be explored and engagement with design: the act of making became an identifiable, intellectual and artistic practice.

And, for all but one of the remaining exhibitors, they are former students of Ingham: Ian Guthridge, Matthew Harding, Scott Mitchell, and Adrian Potter. There was a "style" of furniture that came from the workshop back then. It was refined and economical through a synchrony of structure and form. Stories rich with the ethos of this era are still being told in both narrative and form. Ian Guthridge's table in silver ash and saffronheart is one such piece. It encompasses the hallmark economy, delicacy, visual and material fitness. Another is the dynamic Poise chair of Matthew Harding, which pulls all this into some vigorous, expressive sketch-like scaffolding belonging to a living, running structure - plus his irrepressible bravura. He is the poet amongst these makers as he weaves together surface and deep structure.

According to the American literary critic Harold Bloom, "strong poets" misread embedding precedent, "so as to clear imaginative space for themselves". Scott Mitchell and Adrian Potter since School of Art have cleared such spaces. It is easy to overstate this, but skills present a quandary - the pedestal can quickly become a tethering post. Mitchell's lounge table presents birds-eye Huon pine cached within a fiddleback blackwood structure. It's seductive, it's whistle-clean with sensitive and subtle notes; it's acquisitive, it's (gasp!!) commercial.

The studio furniture movement has probed the orthodoxy of furniture: for Adrian Potter fascinating questions have arisen from the push-and-pull of culture and embedded subculture: there arise startling outcomes in a genre unprepared for the unexpected. Not led by the patron, not by populace, certainly not by the critic - artist led by artist. From tattooing comes his fantasy of Frida: Dia de los Muertos: a hybrid inspiration of the sugar skulls of the Mexican festival of the "Day of the Dead", the painter Frida Kahlo, and fine making.

The exhibited work of Richard Raffan also marks the clearance of space for objects that contain the associative power of their shapes and materials including social and political histories. His boats and their names are innocent in our memory - coasters, dhows, junks, yachts and smacks - small boats that are now part of Australia's insular nightmare.

"I came to woodworking through sculpture. The first tool I used was an adze and I treated it from a carver's point of view". David Upfill-Brown's tool of choice now is probably not an adze, but the sculptor is still present in this flourish of a chair in laminated cherry wood and leather. A chair is a complicated thing of balanced conceptual coherency and functional constraint: it will challenge any sculptor. Upfill-Brown has explored through several related chairs the symmetrical and unsymmetrical arrangement of swelling, cursive-like elements nuancing balance and rhythm....chairs that body-forth the organic plasticity of the human form.

The youngest exhibitor Edward Collett, represents a generational shift in education in the School of Art: it is a world now in which you have to design, invent your own career. Design and experience co-mingle in new connections: key in a young person's life is to move frequently. Collett's cabinets are in the vein of the wardrobe trunks of the era of grand travel with hanging space, drawers, racks for shoes; places for hats. They are a set sheathed not in fine leather, but cunningly in recycled timber.

Craft ACT: Craft and Design Centre are part of this future, this translation into action: about market, locality, value, the environment: experimentation to constantly engage in renewing discussion.

Rodney Hayward is a craftsman and academic