Pour, Tear, Carve: The Possibilities of Wood

Explore how artists in Pour, Tear, Carve: Material Possibilities in the Collection (on view through May 14) use various materials in different ways in their art, and how their choices convey meaning to their work.

Take a look at the works below that incorporate wood and consider:

  • • What connects these objects together? What connects them to you? What connects them to today?
  • • What role does the wood play in evoking a sense of place?

Alfonso Ossorio, Excelsior, 1960, Congregation of glass, bone, wood, shell, and epoxy on panel with velvet-lined frame, 56 x 12 in., The Phillips Collection, The Dreier Fund for Acquisitions, 2008

Alfonso Ossorio, Excelsior, 1960

“The human being is the link between God and the material world. [O]ne of the things I try to do is to infuse into the inanimate a reference back to the whole hierarchy of human experience beginning with the material, using objects instead of just paint.”—Alfonso Ossorio

Seashells, bones, prosthetic glass eyes, marbles, rope, and two halftone reproductions of a young saint or martyr are only a few of the objects that appear in Excelsior. This work is part of the artist’s Congregation series, a term he used to describe how [his materials] “all work together and . . . are unified to a final end, working for one final effect.” Excelsior, both in its title and material, speaks to Ossorio’s memories of his devoutly Catholic upbringing in the Philippines, reignited after a trip back to the country a decade earlier.

William Christenberry, Southern Monument XI, 1983, Wood, sheet metal, metal signs, roofing materials, nails, red soil, and paint, 19 x 28 1/2 x 19 in, The Phillips Collection, Gift of Philip M. Smith, 2004

William Christenberry, Southern Monument XI, 1983

“I feel like I can reach out and touch memory. Somehow it is malleable, you can manipulate it, form it, shape it. It certainly can shape you.”—William Christenberry

Through photography, sculpture, and drawing, William Christenberry explored Southern architecture and its relationship to memory and time. In Southern Monument XI, he places a white punctured sphere atop a house-like steel structure resting on soil that he collected from his hometown in Hale County, Alabama. Unlike the Civil War monuments that memorialize the lives of men who fought to preserve slavery, Christenberry’s abstract structures are forged using found materials to evoke the feeling of a monument. “My pieces have a very narrative or literal quality to them—I won’t deny that. They usually have come from real, existing landscape, but I also make buildings that deal with my childhood memories.”

Betty Parsons, Long Meg, 1979, Painted wood, 39 x 30 1/4 in., The Phillips Collection, Gift of Marjorie Phillips, 1980

Betty Parsons, Long Meg, 1979

“Basically, the creative thing comes out of an idea and out of feeling . . . . Anybody could learn techniques but not everyone has the idea. And, well, you might as well take advantage of the progress made in materials today.”—Betty Parsons

From her Long Island beachfront home in the 1970s, renowned modern art dealer Betty Parsons began making brightly painted constructions from distressed wood. She said of her materials: “They were pieces of houses or docks or boats or signs. . . . And something happened and they were lost. They were tossed about in the sea for I don’t know how long. And then they wash ashore, broken and changed, and I find them.” Often reflecting on concepts related to natural phenomena, history, and myth, this piece alludes to one of the oldest stone circles in England, dating from between the late Neolithic or early Bronze Age. Some believe it to be a burial ground while others suggest it was a gathering place for trade, rituals, or social exchanges.

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