You’re being watched when you step off the elevator on the top floor of the Bellevue Arts Museum, where the 2014 BAM Biennial exhibition “Knock on Wood” is on view. A gigantic striped male head glowers at the visitor, spot-lit against a darkened wall.
The head (“Mask” by Michael de Forest) is the curators’ way of announcing that this show, which features Northwest artists using wood as their principal material, is going to take you outside your wooden-object comfort zone.
The work of the 39 artists on view runs the gamut from straight-out fine furniture (Todd Coglin, “Writing Table”) to enormous, theatrical installations (Kimberly Trowbridge, “Physical Memory”), to paintings in which shaped plywood is simply used as canvas (Kiki MacInnis, “Deadhead”). The best pieces are those which most successfully subvert our usual expectations about things crafted from wood, while the weakest pieces — particularly in the current company — are those which have the least to say beyond the skill of their construction, which in a show like this, is a given.
A case in point is several groups of shaped wooden vessels, well-made and in some cases colorful, but leaving little room for viewer engagement or imagination. I felt the same about the row of mounted faux-indigenous masks, neither the real thing, nor interesting enough on their own. Contemporary artists have found multiple ways to integrate and absorb the powerful forms and ideas of native art without simply “going native,” and two good examples are elsewhere in the exhibit.
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Ed Wicklander, for one, pays homage to one of the oldest sculptures in existence, the Willendorf Venus. His carved wooden “Willendorf Column” features a mix and match of various protruding feminine forms from the ancient statue, without ever quite resolving where one body part ends and the next one begins. Peter Millet presents a set of female-inspired wooden abstractions even more removed from their original historical sources, but we are still aware that these are evocative (and sexy) shapes with a complicated pedigree.
Many of my favorite pieces were enormous in scale, perhaps because these artists were freed from thinking about their material in a conventional or simply functional way, which after all is the way we employ wood most of the time; it’s our domestic outer skin and everyday tool. Scott Trimble has always thought big; his piece here, “Cascade,” is a wooden waterfall that pours down from the ceiling in waves of increasing amplitude, its surface a weave of curved strips; I watched mostly male visitors trying to tease out the secrets of its construction.
Whiting Tennis has contributed a huge all-white bas-relief portrait of two dumpy Ballard warehouses (“White Façade”) with their patched and sagging front walls presented in loving detail; I walk past them every day and was oblivious until now to their peculiar charms.
Laura Buchan’s fierce and inspired Museum of Natural History-style mounted skeleton (“Cetus”) is actually no creature in particular, but she uses the highly finished surface of her grained poplar to suggest the fluid motion of a sea animal through water, as well as the flow of blood through bone.
And don’t miss Taiji Miyasaka’s “Night Blooming,” an unprepossessing pile of scrap wood blocks in the shape of a giant bee hive, out on the roof courtyard. Handsome but not exceptional from the outside, the structure reveals another sort of experience entirely when you squeeze inside and look up. Daylight filters through the narrow chinks between the blocks in hundreds of tiny shards that are surprisingly luminous and animated, like fireflies.
Using scruffy lumberyard debris to create an all-natural light show and a shrine to second chances? Now that’s woodworking.
Gary Faigin is an artist, author, critic and co-founder/artistic director of the Gage Academy of Art.