Wooden Boys

I used to think that the running thread in your work was your interest in objects—the tools, for example—whereas now it seems that the real running thread is your interest in translating those objects into pictures.

Yes, that’s the running thread—the alchemical aspect of it—turning shit into gold, hopefully. That’s always been my intention. I’ve never been a reporter. And if I have a romance with the objects that I’m drawing, it’s more important that I have a romance with the mark that I am making.

. . .

I’m also going to have a show at Pace[Wildenstein] in April 2007 of paintings and sculptures of Pinocchio. I’ve been making the sculptures in wood for two or three years, cutting them in wood with a chainsaw.

I can see that you’re fascinated by the story.

This idea of a talking stick becoming a boy, it’s like a metaphor for art, and it’s the ultimate alchemical transformation.

Robert Ayers Interview with Jim Dine

Discussions about tools are a sore spot for me. Don’t get me wrong, I use tools, research them, and generally have a good working relationship with them— but I do my best to resist fetishizing them. I think it’s just my background as a photographer. One of my favorite sayings (I’m not sure of it’s origin) is that what separates painters from photographers is that painters can have long discussions that don’t involve brushes. The obsession with equipment that drives most “hobbyists” is what separates them from those who I think are serious about the craft. Yes, to make things you need tools— but there is absolutely no reason to discuss them all the time.

I remember listening to a National Gallery podcast discussion with Jim Dine a while ago and the moderator asked him “why tools?” Dine replied that his family owned a hardware store, so they were simply around all the time. Dine is obsessed with drawing, and drawing involves looking very intensely at things. Yes, there are metaphorical connotations to tools, but mostly they were there to look at and explore drawing. Looking at things hard is the cornerstone of interesting photography, in my estimation, as well. It is seldom rewarding to read significance into things instead of looking at them. The attachment of inflated symbolic significance to objects is an accurate definition of fetish. The antidote for that, I think, is simply looking — not glancing or casual looking— but looking hard.

Nonetheless, looking can itself become a fetish because privileging it symbolically gives priority to one sense above all others. I’ve always been attracted to sculpture because in a lot of ways it is a relief from the rigors of concentrated sight. This is not to say that sculpture isn’t a visual medium, but rather that it is so much more than that. To appreciate a sculpture, you’ve got to move around it. Some sculptures also invite touch. Touch, I think, is the most natural way to relieve the stress of looking. If it looks smooth, you can touch it to know its texture in a far more profound way than you can by any amount of concentrated looking. Traditionally, the activity of reading also involved touch because one holds the page and feels the presence the book, even if only liminally. Computers/readers are changing that.

I find it interesting that contemporary books on woodworking deploy cliché photographic techniques (black and white, selective focus, close cropping) to emphasize texture and warm sepia tones evoking nostalgia to promote the fetish nature of hand work. It’s part, I think, of the transposition of reality to screen which has brought these tired techniques to the forefront. You can’t touch the book/screen to feel the finish so this probably seems an improvement to most authors and editors over the traditional glossy-color wet page with illusionistic depth. In the end, this arty photography provides less information. A reader is unable to see the full dimensions of an object. From the perspective of technical communication,  it’s a huge fail: useless “pretty” pictures.

To match these new visual strategies, there are also new/old rhetorical techniques: Good old fashioned purple prose. My most recent encounter with it is a very handsome, lushly illustrated volume from 2009 by Tom Fidgen, Made By Hand. I like the book quite a lot, and the emphasis of the book is less detailed regarding tools themselves while maintaining focus on the new/old perspectives facilitated by classic tools. The projects are a cut above the typical do-it-yourself content, though I was really dissappointed in the level of detail regarding the joinery. An Amazon reviewer summed it up nicely, remarking that the pictures were pretty but the explanation left much to be desired. I hope Fidgen does another book avoiding the Pinocchio affect:

Enter the hand tool woodshop. People can easily spend small fortunes on the newfangled handsaws and reissued hand planes. Imported chisels from foreign shores where they’re still being made to serve a practical purpose and not for the enjoyment or entertainment of the amateur woodworker.

There is a place for these tools, working towards a reachable level of fine workmanship in the home or hobby woodshop. A work space may be only a small room in a condo, rising out of a skyline 50 stories above the street. No trees for miles, an asphalt landscape, where finding anything handcrafted would be next to impossible. Even here, in this cold space of steel and cement, the woodworker hides, dreaming of crafting that perfect piece of furniture. Wishing only to use his hands and his hand tools: quietly shaping and sculpting.

A modern day Gepetto, creating thoughtful pieces of woodwork, worthy of true magic.

Tom Fidgen, Made By Hand (11).


Post junior-high woodshop, around 1982, my most memorable project was a set of record crates from oak to hold my record collection. I set about building them in an upstairs apartment with no patio. I nicknamed the place “The Holiday Inn” because the place looked just like one. Using a workmate and hand power tools, I dusted the walls of the apartment with sawdust— this was long before this new “hand tool revolution.” It wouldn’t have been any more romantic with hand tools, I think. It was frustrating and I never could afford to build enough crates. Wood costs money.

I was a stone-broke Geppeto with only a few tools. The few crates I made were smashed to bits when the U-Haul truck rolled during my move to Arkansas in circa 1994. Most of my remaining tools disappeared in Arkansas; I left a lot behind for the move to Minnesota.