In the Galleries: Iterations of Wood


Installation view of the lobby at the Colby Museum of Art, Spring 2021.

The current installation in the lobby of the Colby Museum of Art features works by Thaddeus Mosley, Nabil Nahas, and Sherrie Levine that draw on the formal qualities of woodgrain and bark, invoking the tactility and naturally occurring surface patterns found in trees. Both Mosley’s Directional and Nahas’s Untitled are recent acquisitions to the Museum’s collection, generously gifted by the Alex Katz Foundation in 2020.

Sherrie Levine
Sherrie Levine,
Untitled (Golden Knots 2), 1987. Oil on plywood, 62 1/2 in. x 50 1/2 in. (158.75 cm x 128.27 cm). Museum purchase from the Jere Abbott Acquisitions Fund, 2004.006.

Sherrie Levine’s Untitled (Golden Knots 2) may, at first glance, seem like a departure from the artist’s most well-known works, in which she rephotographed the images of famous photographers, re-presenting them as her own. However, the material exploration of Untitled (Golden Knots 2) reflects the trademark subversive qualities of Levine’s artistic practice. Plywood, traditionally seen as a low-end building product, is made ornamental through Levine’s application of golden “knots” over each wood plug, or places in the wood that indicate where a branch or bud once sprouted. Structurally, these wood plugs are usually points of weakness in plywood. Levine flips our understanding of this common material on its head by drawing attention to these markers of instability and transforming them into moments in which the life span of the wood is made visible.

Thaddeus Mosley
Thaddeus Mosley, Directional, 2015.
Walnut (wood), 73 x 53 x 53 in. (185 x 135 x 135 cm). Gift of The Alex Katz Foundation, 2020.046.

Like Levine, Mosley transforms an everyday material into something that challenges our knowledge of its physical properties in Directional. Mosley, whose sculptures are sourced from reclaimed building supplies, sawmills, and trees from his hometown of Pittsburgh, repurposes found wood into graceful, abstracted figures. Using heavy hardwoods such as walnut, Mosley carves tension and movement into the material, reanimating his sculptures with qualities that possessed the timber in its original arboreal form. The sense of weight in Directional changes fluidly depending on the physical vantage point of the viewer, sometimes looking evenly distributed and other times seemingly defying gravity. Through their satisfying transformation into almost body-like forms, Directional’s carved offshoots can be appreciated as separate entities that stretch away from the sculpture’s base, even as they exist in simultaneous harmony with the work’s formal whole.

Nabil Nahas, Untitled, 2019. Acrylic on canvas, 98 3/8 x 78 3/4 in. (250 x 200 cm). Gift of the Alex Katz Foundation, 2020.047.

Nabil Nahas’s Untitled is a pictorial representation of a tree, its composition cropped closely enough to feature only the center of the tree’s form, where its branches meet the trunk. Instinctively, through an understanding of the growth of trees, the mind can reconstruct the remainder of the branches beyond the borders of the painting’s canvas. The familiarity of the form of a tree, something passed by often but perhaps without deep study, is undermined by Nahas’s closely rendered attention to its surface. A corporeal sensation of bark rubbing against one’s palm is invoked through Untitled’s depth of color and gestural lines, pricking at our lived, but underexamined, knowledge of the subject matter’s physicality. Untitled’s surface prompts a somatic memory of encounters with trees, forging an embodied experience of the painting.