American Craft, June/July 2001
Recent Work by Donald Fortescue
by Glenn Adamson
In the recent work of Donald Fortescue, who heads the Wood/Furniture program at the California College of Arts and Crafts in the Bay Area. craftsmanship is not employed as a means to an end, but rather as a metaphor for the artistic condition. For most of his career – in his native Australia where he ran the furniture department at an innovative design center called the Jam Factory and in the United States, where he emigrated in 1997 – Fortescue has designed furniture. Ingeniously constructed, stylish furniture that wears the influences of Japanese contemporary designers plainly on its sleeve. But Fortescue’s new works, shown recently (January 19 through March 3) at a show entitled “Empty Vessels” at the John Elder Gallery in New York City, are definitely not furniture—nor are they only sculpture. They are, simply, woodworking at its most ambitious.
The objects are impeccably made, and despite their minimalist forms, they betray the artist’s obvious love of technical innovation. On a purely technical level, in fact, most furniture makers would be amazed by this show, because there is not a straight line anywhere in sight. Fortescue, an avid writer, notes in one of his recent essays, “it is incredibly easy to create lengths of timber and joints which are perfectly square and straight with standard woodworking machinery. To defy this unwritten ‘law of rectilinearity’ is difficult and expensive, and its success depends on the eye and hand skills of the maker.”
And indeed, as a collection of work, the objects in the exhibition illustrate the potential of non-rectilinear processes such as coopering, stack lamination and lathe-turning. Each of Fortescue’s designs features one or more of these seemingly conventional processes. Pod, for example, is a coopered form like a barrel that stretches up into the air so that its curving staves meet at a single point. Pike (Basking) was made by gluing cylinders of plywood together, with an angle between each cylinder. The whole was then hand-shaped into a supine, sinuous form. Pip is a stack of plywood sheets that has been hand-shaped into a smooth disk and stood on end. Each layer of its material creates an irregular, biomorphic shape that plays against the perfectly round profile of the whole. Pip is a surprising demonstration of a seemingly uniform material’s resistance to the predictable geometry of regulated processing.
The content of the work, too, very much betrays Fortescue’s obsession with craftsmanship. This is not initially obvious, because the work reminds one of modernist sculpture so strongly. An object like Pod, like so much studio craft nowadays, seems to be an homage to Brancusi and his peers—a non-functional shape which plays subtle formalist games. Its composition plays with the boundary between object and floor, as if the totality of the rounded form had been sliced off unexpectedly (a trick used in Pike and Pip as well). Its scale suggests a relationship to the human body, and its simple material is presented as a focus of unaffected aesthetic pleasure.
All of these ideas were staples of modernism—ideas, one could argue, that were already done to death forty years ago. But Fortescue is anything but a throwback; the reason his forms are so clean is that he’s just not that interested in formper se. The clearest sign of this is the decorated surface of Pod. The exterior sheathed with a pattern that seems at first to be a decorative weave, but upon inspection proves to be a continuous spiral of tally marks that have been burned into the wooden surface with a serigraph. Each scorched line records one stroke of the artist’s hand, and therefore an immense amount of repetitive labor. It’s difficult to stand face to face with Pod without cringing. Like so much graffiti on a jail cell wall, the endless tallies are emotionally overwhelming.
With this degree of investment, it is no surprise to learn that Fortescue carefully thought through the numerology of the piece. He calculated the size of the whole form so that the number of marks—some 70,000 in total—would be roughly equivalent to the number of working hours in an average person’s lifetime. This means that the highly worked surface is an index not only of the physical process of making, but the experience of that making as well. The tallies draw a parallel between the time spent on the piece and the time Fortescue has left to work in his lifetime. Once this countdown has been absorbed by a viewer, the other pieces in the exhibition begin to suggest their own kind of temporal layering—the stacked sheets of plywood gradually revealing, like archaeological stratigraphy, the act of shaping.
This autobiographical aspect of Pod is underscored by the fact that the whole sculpture is about the height and girth of the Fortescue’s tall body. If this is an “Empty Vessel,” then it seems destined to eventually contain the artist himself (the shape of the piece, which is reminiscent of a coffin or sarcophagus, implies as much). In the John Elder Gallery installation, the form’s subtle mortuary connotations were amplified by a cluster of small coopered boat-shaped bowls. These seem to symbolize a momentous passage that is just getting underway—perhaps a sea voyage, Viking style, into the afterlife. Given these somber undertones, Pod is best seen, ultimately, as a kind of introspective self-portrait.
If this is so, then what is Fortescue telling us about himself? He is obviously not comfortable with many of the traditional trappings associated with handmade wooden object—utility, familiarity, the appeal of beautiful timber. Podis disturbing partly because it reads as a indictment of these values, an embrace of the intellectual dynamics of process instead of sensual appeal. The coopered bowls are production work—functional objects made in series that serve as a “bread and butter” item for a craftsman. Pod rises out of this sea of practical objects like a monument to futility—a one-of-a-kind sculptural object with no purpose, on which time and energy have been lavishly expended. In this respect, the work is ambivalent. Despite its evidence of exhaustive handwork, but it simultaneously implies that commitment can rapidly reach the point of absurdity.
All of these doubts are absent from a final work in the exhibition, another stacked plywood form entitled Plumb. At first, this piece seems like a jaunty formal exercise in the vein of the Pikes and Pip. But Plumb has a bit more to it than that. Fortescue engineered it so that it would retain its balance when resting on every given point of its curved base; it can stand straight up like a fat raindrop, or tip to the side in seeming defiance of physics. Actually, the round-bottomed shape is explained by the title, which refers to a traditional carpentry tool called a “plumb bob” that is rarely used in today’s world of liquid levels. A simple string with a weight on the end, the plumb bob has been used for centuries to create a perfectly vertical line—an axis against which to measure.
Much the same could be said for Plumb’s relationship to the rest of the pieces in the exhibition. If Pod is a dark, self-doubting meditation, and the other sculptures on display are playfully unexpected manipulations of process, thenPlumb is the confident centerpiece of the show. Its exuberant celebration of the assurances of fine craftsmanship seems like an anchor in this sea of forms. Where Pod seems to exist in a state of anxious transition, Plumb sits matter-of-factly still on its immaculate disk of white felt, poised and implacable.
The message one takes away from this body of work probably depends on what one brings to it. If one is looking to be impressed by technique, certainly there is much to be impressed by. And if one is looking for either a condemnation or celebration of craft’s obsessive character, there will be something in this collection to agree with. Ironically, this lack of stridency may be the most impressive thing about Fortescue’s recent sculpture, and the reason they deserve the collective title of “Empty Vessels.” They hold a mirror up to the studio woodworking field, as if to point to the good and bad existing within it. Whatever Donald Fortescue’s next move may prove to be, you can bet that everyone involved in studio woodworking will be watching.