by Mark A. Cheetham
Wood Culture, or the Pathos of Our Fallacies
Search ‘wood culture’ and you will discover an eclectic array of engagements with this fundamental product of nature, from woodworking hobbyists to ecologists keen on establishing a World Wood Day. A ‘wood’ is also a place. Susana Reisman’s exhibition joins and extends the imperative to understand the social and material functions of wood in our everyday lives. She is a keen observer of the systems, habits of thought, and revealing exceptions to well-worn patterns of belief and behaviour around wood. In questioning the ubiquitous though largely unnoticed transformations from trees to wood to lumber, Reisman avoids the didactic, instead encouraging us to think differently about an element crucial to our lives. She asks viewers to ponder the ways that we think about wood as she mirrors its physical manipulation in our society.
Forests figure in the mythological and practical origins of many societies.(1) Today, their decimation is a primary ecological concern worldwide. While Reisman’s drawings, photographs and sculptures can evoke the pathos of our insatiable appetite for and squandering of this diminishing resource, she works primarily on a more immediate plane to uncover what we easily ignore in our constant material and cultural transformations of wood. If written and spoken language always simplifies differences among objects, speakers, and readers for the sake of ready communication, ‘tree’ and ‘wood’ are already cultural commodifications. ‘Lumber,’ as Reisman reveals, is even more overtly standardized by its industrial processing and by the increasing specifications of the vocabularies used to commodify it as a product. ‘Dimensional lumber’ is wood regularized physically and lexically into ‘two by fours’ and similar basic units. Anachronistic as the imperial measurement system’s terms may sound, the synecdoche of the human body in its reference to ‘feet,’ for example, is key to Reisman’s approach. She personalizes even highly processed lumber to return our thoughts to the trees within or behind wood as merchandise. Reisman can be seen to exploit personification–specifically the long maligned habit of ‘pathetic fallacy,’ in which non-human objects are lent human qualities and emotion. John Ruskin coined the term pathetic fallacy in 1856 to counter the Romantic tendency to identify reality with human emotion, a practice that he thought belied the reality of nature. Yet as he showed, this “fallacy” does validly explore human sentiment. As with the weather, when we talk about nature, or parts of it such as trees, we are talking about ourselves. Reisman’s work is about our culture’s handling of wood in the senses of being ‘sympathetic’ to it and also with its colloquially ‘pathetic’ meaning, as environmentally harmful behaviour that we should be able to control. Ironically, it is in this way, by returning us to human machinations around wood, that she lets trees be themselves.
Reisman’s various projects–individual sculptures, sculptural installations, photographs–set her meditations on trees, wood, and lumber into easy dialogue. There is no obligatory starting point in Standardizing Nature, no moralistic teleology as she arranges both different media and diverse takes on the roles of wood in our culture. Committed to the hand work that remains a part of the lumber industry, woodworking, and artmaking, Reisman employs her own carpentry skills to enunciate what standardization seeks to deny, the individuality of even the most processed lumber. She creates a sculptural forest in Dressed Lumber, a stand of individual pieces that appears to be a group portrait. Employing the everyday tools of the construction industry–tape, graphite, household paint–Reisman marks each element to emphasize features inherent to the wood that appear in this processed lumber. The complexity of wood culture is magnified by the fact that Reisman both does and does not alter the standardized lumber that she uses. She rearranges and marks what commodification has supplied. She provides a commentary without attempting remediation. The anonymity of the lumber yard is removed. Reisman instead raises her players on a platform and in this move echoes Modernist sculptural presentations by Brancusi, Ernst, Giacometti, and Penone. Another small, freestanding sculpture uses both carefully cut rounds of wood and a sweetly curved veneer that she interlaces among these stacked ‘blanks,' as they are called in woodworking circles, connecting yet delicately disturbing them. Formally, this piece, entitled Path Dependence, is loosely reminiscent of Brancusi’s wood columns, yet Reisman uses prefab materials common among hobbyists. While such art historical reverberations are significant, more important is Reisman’s recollection of the forest, of trees in a less regimented and processed form, to which the photographs in this exhibition constantly return our eye and thoughts.
Closely allied to Dressed Lumber are individual portrayals such as 1 × 6 × 3 Rough-cut slab, which Reisman presents as photographs against a neutral backdrop to underscore their presentation as portraiture and to register again that she is both physically and conceptually manipulating these wood products. Here Reisman singles out just one potentially useful board within the larger piece of raw wood. Like a sawyer, the highly skilled worker who can tell which sections of standardized lumber can be cut most efficiently from a log, she imagines nature metamorphosed, but now into art rather than merchandise. With a dry sense of wit that underlines the commercial source of her materials, Reisman has used the descriptions of lumber from her sales receipts to title these individual works. These droll titles redeploy, against themselves, the functional, descriptive designations in the lexicon of lumber used by builders: 2 × 6 × 92 5/8 SPF Select Stud, ¼ × 24 × 24 Plywood, 1 × 1 × 4 PT Nailing Strip, and 2 × 2 × 8 Knotty Cedar Lumber. Where connections between trees, wood, and lumber are suppressed in the lumber industry, Reisman reinstates a sense of process, linkage, and even personality.
Untitled (frame) is both consistent with Reisman’s method of re-presenting already transformed wood products and unusual, even disturbing, in its gossamer insubstantiality. A monochrome image of shims, knots and all, has been scanned and then printed onto a spun viscose challis. Shroud-like, this fabric is then loosely draped over a wooden (picture?) frame that leans casually against the wall at floor level. So much about this sculpture is familiar, pre-coded for our consumption: the image (even the faux wood grain made famous in the cubists’ practice), the support for the image (the ‘canvas’), and of course the frame, painted white to look clean and neutral. But other dimensions of Untitled simultaneously upset convention: the image is banal (though reminiscent of Ernst’s surrealist frottages). It doesn’t sit securely in its frame. And this ‘mis-represented’ picture is in the wrong place in the gallery, standing as it does at foot, not eye level. Untitled and her sibling, 1 × 1 × 4 PT Nailing Strip #4–who stands (oddity amongst oddities) near the middle of Dressed Lumber, a mere stick with a cloth image of lumber drooped over its top point–are pivotal, exemplary works in Standardizing Nature because with them Reisman steers close to the inescapable norms of standardization in both the art world and lumber industry precisely in order to provide ways for us to reflect on these habits, to see how we build them to seem natural.
One remarkable feature that Reisman makes visible in industrially treated lumber is the ‘finger joint,’ a machine-produced lock via which intercalated pieces of wood form a standardized unit. Finger joints used to be made by hand, a contrast that suggests a loose analogy between Reisman’s analogue sculptural work and her equal devotion to digital photography. The diverse elements of Standardizing Nature converse across both formats. Reisman’s digital photographs survey a range of timber practices: carefully planted tree farms, industrial harvesting, and more and less professional uses of wood products. House Frame displays a multivalent theme that governs the suite. We look out onto ‘nature’ through the partly framed–that is, constructed–wall of a house. A large opening is established by well-known players in the standardized lumber vocabulary. So immediately recognizable is this sight that we might miss how lumber unavoidably structures our view of two other dimensions of wood’s past and present in nature here: a forest in the background and a seemingly rejected branch in the cleared but as yet not ‘landscaped’ area adjacent to the house’s foundation. This bough seems to have been rejected, yet it proclaims its uncertain status in a way reminiscent of Emily Carr’s painting Scorned as Timber, Beloved of the Sky (1935), in which a lone tree has been abandoned in a chaotic forest clear-cut. We sense a similar melancholy in Reisman’s matter of fact Clear-cut.
Reisman photographs how our society ‘treats’ wood. In what might appear as a before-and-after sequence– in Managed Forest, a highly regular stand of trees is seen alongside power lines supported by wooden telephone poles (another anachronistic name, given that much telecommunication now is wireless), and we view a stack of lumber framed with living trees in an otherwise open lot in Kiln Dried Lumber–she reveals how tree farming and lumber production look ‘natural’ to us. Driving past such sights, would we notice them? Is there anything specific about the sites and activities in these photographs? Reisman’s images constantly slow our looking to a pace where we can think about and feel what’s happening. In Utility Pole, a wooden telephone pole stands with, and yet in contrast to, a scrubby glade. Not hewn from these trees and no longer a tree, it is still strangely kin. Here as so often with Reisman’s terse and readymade titles, our attention to what might seem banal is heightened. A ‘utility’ pole carries services and is thus merely functional. But its utility in this photograph is to remind us of wood and trees when we see lumber.
Reisman’s photographs of different types of lumber set to varying purposes, though always without an overt human presence, suggests again the pathetic fallacy. In her laconically named Lumber Yard, can we not imagine that the wooden building, weathered and well used, somehow supports the ‘younger’ lumber that is stored and presented there? Characteristically observant in what seems to be a random image, Reisman includes in the frame pieces of older, apparently discarded lumber, just as she did with the less processed tree branch in the foreground of House Frame. Similarly in 8 × 8 Beams, lumber protects lumber, we may think. Wooden skids hold identical wooden beams up off the ground, keeping them dry from the bottom. Reisman is careful to show that such projected care is not the rule, however. The wood in Pallets, once highly regularized and useful, is now discarded. In two photographs of houses, she displays our disregard for wood and for of ourselves. Oriented Strand Board shows a house under construction, displaying the flimsy and vulnerable under skin of its title, a foundation of pressed and glued woodchips. The other home is carelessly boarded up, sealed off with mismatched lumber (Plywood). A partially removed stump at the foundation level throws out meager new growth. We are disoriented by both images. If for Reisman we reflect the human when we picture wood, the final, lower right image in her sequence of photographs in Standardizing Nature–the piles of woodchips against a barely visible line of green conifers in Sawmill By-product –poses important questions. Does it suggest waste, that we are wantonly using up this resource? Or as the lumber industry claims, does it show the sustainability of wood products, given that even these chips will be used to make new lumber products, such as the Oriented Strand Board that Reisman pictures? She does not propose easy answers to the questions we may have. As in Log Pile and Kiln Dried Lumber, tire tracks in the barren foreground witness human activity, but of an inscrutable, perhaps purposeless kind.
The pathos in many of Reisman’s images is clear, more so because it is balanced by an unapologetically beautiful photograph such as Cords. Again suggesting an anthropomorphized relationship of sheltering, an extensive storehouse of firewood stands ‘ready to hand’ in Martin Heidegger’s sense of a mere technological facility that we employ unthinkingly. The firewood is embraced, it seems, by a row of large conifers. The cut wood might seem to be the natural offspring of trees if we adopt the widespread imperialism that takes nature as nothing but a resource at our disposal. But the beauty, ease, and naturalness of this photograph also make us think that even a renewable resource such as wood requires more than management to last into the future.
1. See Robert Pogue Harrison, Forests: the shadow of civilization. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992). Part One of Simon Schama's classic Landscape and Memory (1995) is entitled "Wood."