Vince Skelly (b. 1987, Claremont, CA; lives and works in Claremont, CA) combines process, collective memory, and material to create wooden sculptures that explore the space between sculptural form and functional object. Using wood from a variety of trees from the Pacific Northwest and Southern California, Skelly works reductively to shape each stool, chair, or abstract form from a single block. Following grain, patterns, knots, and other characteristics inherent to the material, Skelly teases out simplified and essential forms that emerge in consort with the uniqueness and singularity of each block. The sculptures are inspired by various traditions of wood carving, both ancient and modern, as well as by disparate reference points such as megalithic dolmens, ancient figurines, the sculptures of Brancusi, and the figures found in the paintings of Phillip Guston. With a chainsaw and traditional hand tools, Skelly slowly reveals biomorphic volumes, off-kilter angles, and carved portals within his glyph-like forms, each bearing their own spirit, rhythm and personality.
Skelly: Thinking through Brâncuși and Penone by Sandra Percival
Invited by Adams and Ollman to write about artist Vince Skelly’s exhibition and new work, the exchange below is part provocation and part conversation on the work and practice of two modern/contemporary artists—Constantin Brâncuși and Giuseppe Penone—as a way of thinking about and contextualizing Skelly’s work.
Part 1: The Work of Art & the Artist’s Studio: Constantin Brâncuși
Adams and Ollman’s first introduction to Vince Skelly was an image of an arrangement of Skelly’s works in his studio, one work of which called to mind Constantin Brâncusi’s Endless Column. While a series of Skelly’s works were differently arranged at Adams and Ollman in Vince Skelly: New Works on view February 12—March 13, 2021, Brâncuși becomes the focus to think about an artist’s relationship to their studio as a space for thinking and making, and potentially, the studio in its entirety as a work of art in and of itself.
Early in his life, Brâncuși had an aptitude for wood carving seen in early stacked columnar and totemic-like sculptures, and in the mid-1910s, he made works such as Chien de garde (Watchdog, 1916) from salvaged oak beams, reflecting a “primitivizing” influence. Brâncuși’s Endless Column (15 stacked rhomboidal modules) is part of a triptych of works along with the Table of Silence (a circular stone table surrounded by twelve hour-glass seats) and The Gate of the Kiss which comprise Brâncuși‘s 1938 World War I monument in Târgu Jiu, commemorating the sacrifice of Romanians who fought against the forces of Central European Powers in 1916. Situated on a 1.3km (3/4 mi) long axis and oriented east to west, Brâncuși‘s monument stands as his magnum opus.
Beyond the similarity in form evoked in comparing a hand-carved column or sculpture by Vincent Skelly with Constantin Brâncuși‘s work, how do we think of an artist’s studio with a changing array of works as a “gesamskunstwerke” or total work of art? Seeing a smaller version of Brâncuși’s Endless Column set in his studio, led me to search further as to how Brâncuși thought about and used his studio and the works within it, as a way to elicit Skelly’s relationship to his studio. One studio—Brâncuși’s atelier near rue Rombuteau was rebuilt several times in 1936 and 1941 and is now set within the grounds of the Pompidou Center built in 1971 in urban Paris, while Skelly’s studio is set in his backyard in the urban landscape of Southeast Portland, Oregon in the Pacific Northwest, United States.
Constantin Brâncuși (1876-1957) came from a poor Romanian peasant background where his family labored in the fields near the Carpathian Mountains in eastern Europe. Brâncuși herded sheep and, as an eighteen-year-old lover of music, he created his own violin which led him to enroll at the Craiova School of Arts and Crafts where he studied woodworking, graduating in 1898. He then studied sculpture at the Bucharest School of Fine Arts, and later at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris from 1905 to 1907. He arrived in Paris in 1904 at the moment of the Parisian avant-garde of the 1910s and 1920s amidst a coterie of artists including Modigliani, Picasso, Bourgeois, Duchamp, and Leger. Over the years, the influence of his Romanian peasant roots persisted; his house and studio were filled with rough-hewn furniture in wood and stone.
From 1916 until his death in 1957, Brâncuși’s various studios were used for works in progress and to house his workbench and tools. Brâncuși, in all his work—whether in a gallery, museum, or a landscape—considered the relationship between his sculptures and the space they occupied to be crucial. By the 1910s, Brâncuși began laying out and arranging his sculptures in close spatial relationships in the studio which he called “mobile groups” considering the connections between the works themselves and the possibilities of each for moving around within the group. In the 1920s, the studio itself became an exhibition space and a work of art in its own right—a “gesamskunstwerk”—or, as Brâncuși called it, “a body consisting of cells that all generated each other.” At the end of his life, Brâncuși stopped creating sculptures and focused solely on their relationships within the studio. While no longer exhibiting, when he sold a work, he replaced it with a plaster copy in the studio so as not to destroy the unity of the group.
Part 2: The Work of Art & the Artist’s Material and Method: Giuseppe Penone
After Brâncuși, I thought about artists whose work would also provoke thinking about Vince Skelly’s sculptures. First, Martin Puryear who, similar to Brâncuși, raised issues of labor, craft, woodworking, and also race. However, I kept thinking about Skelly’s use of wood as his sole material and his practice of carving each object from a single block of a tree. In my Skelly file was an Artforum ad for a 2011 Giuseppe Penone, Haunch of Venison London exhibition—a full-page image of a section of a tree revealing its rings and carved out shapes and markings. Penone supplanted Puryear and became the focus to think about an artist’s relationship to, and use of, trees as a natural material for an array of objects and manners of making.
Skelly’s works reveal the chainsaw and carving gestures which erode a single block of wood—often native to the Pacific Northwest—to form his sculptures. Assembled together in the gallery at Adams and Ollman, Skelly’s works were laid out as if awaiting guests to sit, converse, or pause in silence. Strangely, they do not assert a scale for human use, perhaps revealing one of Skelly’s influences: The Flintstones’ prehistoric “midcentury-modern/caveman vibe.” While Skelly’s objects echo domestic forms of primitive tables, stools, and lintels, Penone’s works are rooted in the tree itself. In 1968, Penone wrote “I feel the forest breathing, and hear the slow, inexorable growth of wood.” In his search to reveal nature’s vital processes, he says “In a tree, there isn’t a single useless branch. That means the tree is a perfect sculpture.”
Giuseppe Penone’s 1968 Alpi Marittime (Maritime Alps) exists as a photographic work documenting six actions carried out by Penone in the Garessio forest in which he performs small gestures that interfere with natural elements. Penone’s attraction to natural materials and his corporal approach to art, influenced by the theatre of Jerzy Grotowski, caught the attention of Germano Celant (1940-2020). In the 1960s, critic, curator, and theorist Celant defined an attitude and an era. Nourished by the anti-establishment sentiment of the late 1960s when artists were taking a radical stance against the values of established institutions, Celant curated an exhibition of five young Italian artists—Alighiero Boetti, Jannis Kounellis, Luciano Fabro, Giovanni Anselmo, and Giuseppe Penone—who made work using humble materials and simple everyday objects including melted wax, rusting iron, fallen leaves, ground coffee, even horses munching hay. In his 1967 manifesto Arte Povera: Notes for a Guerilla, and his 1969 book Arte Povera, Celant states “each of these artists has chosen to live within direct experience” and “feels the necessity of leaving intact the value of the existence of things.”
Giuseppe Penone was born in 1947 in the Piedmontese village of Garessio, Italy, the son and grandson of farmers. He went to Turin in the late 1960s to study sculpture at the Accademia Albertina, which he left after only one year. Rejecting academia, Penone sought to embrace natural materials and search out methods he could relate to, saying “not having culture, not being knowledgeable about art, the only reality and identity I had was that of the place where I’d been born.” He started working in the woods around Garessio where he performed a series of experimental pieces in which saplings and streams became the protagonists of his work. Today, Penone’s villa and 16-hectare estate in the mountains outside of Turin is surrounded by a forest of greenery. Penone’s studio is a cavernous warehouse with the vast trunk of a conifer, various tools for sawing and carving, and industrial machinery for moving large objects. An adjacent annex holds works which are in the process of being prepared for exhibition. Both spaces smell of wood/timber.
In 1969, Penone made his first Albero (Tree) work by carving into mature timbers and removing the wood along the outer growth rings to reveal the sapling at the core of the trunk which he called “a memory.” On display, the delicate sapling, set upon a plank of the tree, is propped at an angle from ceiling to floor. In 1970 to museum audiences, he twice performed Albero di dodici metri (Trees of Twelve Metres), scraping away the wood from a felled tree, which he’d first roughly sawn into a beam, to reveal its internal structure of developing branches. The pair of 12-meter saplings emerge from wooden blocks, standing between the ceiling and the floor.
In 2004, similar to earlier Alberi (Trees) but at a much larger scale, Penone bought a 194-year-old storm-felled Cedar of Lebanon from the forest surrounding the Parque de Versailles to create his totemic Cedrodi Versailles (Cedar of Versailles) where he hacked away at the trunk of the tree, excavating the growth rings to reveal the sapling inside. The sapling stands within the void of the massive bark-covered, hallowed out trunk of the tree. Ripetere il bosco (Repeating the Forest) (1969-1974) assembles “a forest” of Penone’s Alberi—industrially cut blocks of timber shaped back into their natural state, from fragile, wisp-like branches to monumental trunks, which stand in a grove as if found in nature. In 2011 to create The Hidden Life Within, Penone stated that by carving out a younger tree from within a massive tree to reveal how it changed with years of growth was making visible natural processes which are normally hidden, ones which compel us to think about the concept of time. In 2019, Penone created an ever-finer rendering of a tree, this time with a 100-year-old conifer from the Valle des Merveilles in the Alps. Splitting the tree lengthwise, he gouged out the inner core to extract the growth rings, presenting it as Matrice di linfa (Sap Matrix)—a 43-metre-long monumental sculpture propped horizontally, like a canoe, by its branches on a “carpet” of the splayed off sheets of bark.
The journey could go on… to delve deeper, a further juxtaposition with Skelly’s as well as Penone’s oeuvres most recently came into view with a picture in Bookforum (Summer, 2020) of 94-year-old self-taught artist Thaddeus Mosley’s Geometric Plateau, 2014, walnut, cheery, 94 x 70 x 24”. He lives in Pittsburgh and cites Brâncuși as an influence.
Recommended Reading: Overstory by Richard Powers, Winner of the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
Sandra Percival is Founding Director and Curator of Zena Zezza in Portland, Oregon, presenting artist project seasons which include an exhibition and series of performative dialogues events. Since 2013, project seasons have included Josiah McElheny, Anthony McCall, Stan Douglas, Chantal Akerman, Hans Coper, and Shanghai-based artist/filmmaker Yang Fudong, fall 2021. Over four decades—from Seattle to London to San Francisco and returning to Portland, her hometown—Percival has curated and produced artists’ research/laboratory projects, exhibitions, and commissioned new work and multi-year public projects. Prior positions include Washington State Arts Commission, Public Art Development Trust, and New Langton Arts. In Seattle, she commissioned Jenny Holzer’s first permanent work; in London, Roni Horn’s Another Water for the “Thames and Hudson Rivers Project,” and, in the Bay Area, co-curated a retrospective of Lynn Hershman Leeson and commissioned Albanian artist Adrian Paci’s film Centro di Permanenza Temporanea. Participatory projects include OPENrestaurant, an event in Langton’s annex with artists, cooks, farmers, and activists, and in Portland to reenact “In the Spirit of Jean Dupuy’s 1974 Soup & Tart,” Percival cooked pistou soup for one hundred guests followed by forty artists’ two-minute performances. Percival was awarded an NEA Museum Fellowship and has lectured and participated in national and international conferences in the US, UK, Europe, Mexico, Brazil, and Australia. She taught in the MA in Curatorial Practice program at California College of the Arts, and served on University of California San Francisco’s Art Board, Mission Bay. Percival was a contributor to Camera Obscura, Feminism, Culture, and Media Studies “On Chantal Akerman” (2019).
In Conversation: Andrea Glaser and Vince Skelly
Andrea Glaser: I thought we could start off by talking a little bit about your studio.
Vince Skelly: I work in two types of studio spaces. In Portland, I mostly carved at a log yard called Goby Walnut. They mill logs and sell them as slabs. It became one of my main sources for wood because they let me carve discarded chunks from the saw mill. It’s a perfect setting because I’m surrounded by massive stacks of logs towering over me. I had a home studio in Portland that I used to sand and finish my pieces. Soon I'll have a similar set up in Claremont. I really love working from home because there’s no commute and it makes it easy to start early.
That’s awesome. There are probably not many places in the world where wood is so bountiful and accessible as a log yard in the Pacific Northwest.
Yeah, the Northwest is a great place to be if you work with wood. Now that I'm living in a desert, I have to look harder and drive further for material.
Oh, that’s right—you just moved down to California didn’t you?
Yes, I just moved from Portland. We live in a town called Claremont, 30 miles east of downtown Los Angeles.
You’re like a migratory bird.
Yeah, that's how I like to think of it.
It seems like you’ve got a pretty good set-up to carry you into this new chapter.
That’s true, but it took me a long time to figure that out. Sometimes learning the hard way can work out for the better. In my case, it’s a result of being self-taught which makes the outcome more exciting.
Can you talk a little about what your process is like? Your works are all made from a single chunk of wood, is that right?
That’s right. I started doing that out of necessity. Carving from a solid block of wood can be done almost entirely with a chainsaw. It keeps the process simple and allows people to see how it was made. The fact that you can find discarded chunks of wood for free adds to the accessibility of what I do. I prefer to work with found wood because the parameters are already set. The natural form of the found object dictates what I can do with it and poses an important challenge. The visual language I’ve created is a result of that challenge and also my interest in ancient forms.
In Sandra Percival’s piece about your show at Adams and Ollman earlier this year, she makes some interesting connections between you and Constantin Brâncuși and Giuseppe Penone that situate you in a sort of through line. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about how you see your work in the context of these other artists.
I’m a big fan of Brâncuși’s precision and form. I relate more to his wood plinths than his bronze sculptures. Maybe it’s because they’re functional and most of my work is functional. His sculptures feel formal, polished, and geometric compared to my work. My process relies on improvisation. It’s like comparing classical music to free jazz.
I think that is partly what makes your work so inviting. It seems like traditionally craftsmanship is judged on an ability to create something that is as close to some concept of perfection as possible—as though the object needs to transcend the creator and the material that is being used in a way that allows the object to then be judged on a sort of separate general hierarchical structure. I think that's kind of what you're getting at when you talk about polished. But your work seems to really embrace the the journey of making, and embrace the material as it comes to you. It’s like they refuse to be thrown into this other scale. It has the effect of really inviting communion.
I agree. I love traditional craftsmanship and have a great appreciation for it, but I don’t like following rules when I’m making art. I grew up with a traditional arts and crafts style rocking chair in our home, and what I loved about it is that I could see the joinery and how it was built. The mortise and tenons were visible and nothing was hidden. There was a sense of transparency. One of the reasons why I leave raw textures and tool marks is because it shows signs of how it was made.
Yeah, your work is very powerful. It’s very rich. You can't put the works into any particular corner, they're like people.
I love hearing that. One of my favorite moments was when someone was looking at four of my sculptures and said it looked like the cast of Seinfeld.
Ha! Totally. They have a ton of character. And they have this quality, like some people, that makes you want to go over and talk to them.
Andrea Glaser (b. 1985 Houston, TX) works at Adams and Ollman in Portland, OR. She is a producer, dancer, and member of the audio-visual group S.E.C.R.E.T.S., which recently released its first full length LP Prince Romeo (Toki’s Dream, 2021), and creates other audio and visual material under the name bon rat. She previously worked as an inside labor organizer with the Service Employees International Union, and illustrated for Grantland Quarterly.
“Skelly connects past, present, and future in his work, drawing relationships between ancient forms and contemporary architecture and furniture. With his work being ‘carved from a single block’, Skelly believes there is an amorphous relationship between the contemporary and the prehistoric, giving him a vast array of unified objects he desires to sculpt.”
—“Vince Skelly’s Sculptures for Lauren Manoogian.” Yellow Trace. March 23, 2021.
“Skelly follows the grain and patterns inherent in each piece, inspired by antecedents that stretch from prehistoric megalithic dolmens to the sculptures of Brâncuși, the paintings of Philip Guston, the cartoon sets of the Flintstones, and the carvings of JB Blunk.”
—Singer, Jill. “Two New Ways to See Vince Skelly’s Shaggy, Chainsaw-Carved Sculptures.” Sight Unseen, March 9, 2021.
“Transfixed by how prehistoric objects look perfectly placed in the modern world, the up-and-coming Portlander harnesses the spiritual qualities of wood to sculpt primordial, dolmen-like pieces that feel like they traveled through time.”
—Waddoups, Ryan. “For Vince Skelly, Wood Carving Is a Meditative Act.” Surface. February 11, 2021.
“Skelly’s works have been commissioned by celebrity clients like Off-White CEO Virgil Abloh, Canadian chef Matty Matheson and designer Kelly Wearstler, but he prefers creating for the sake of it, allowing the sculptures to come from the nature of the wood instead of the reverse. His process begins with found or foraged wood, usually from fallen trees in the neighborhoods around his Portland studio... ‘There’s this kind of scavenger aspect to it, which I like,’ he says.”
—Felix, Marina. “Block of ages: This Portland wood sculptor is putting a modern spin on ancient forms.” Business of Home. April 22, 2021.
“Blackening a surface is as old as fire itself, points out woodworker Vince Skelly. He uses the Japanese method of shou sugi ban to char the surface of his small furnishings, carved from wood salvaged in the Pacific Northwest. These pieces and others spotlight the force of dark beauty.”
—“11 Black Sculptural Home Objects to Create a Lyrical, Dramatic Effect.” Wall Street Journal Magazine.
“Cut straight from the blocks of Paulownia wood, a Chinese species endemic to the Pacific Northwest, the ‘Marayour Table’ is made up of three elemental forms. A cylinder and “U-shape” help prop-up a linear slab in a roughly-hewn monolithic assemblage that resembles Stonehenge, or the geological formations of Utah’s Natural Bridges Monument.”
—Madlener, Adrian. “Object of the Week: ‘‘Marayour Table’, 2021, Vince Skelly.” The Design Edit. February 25, 2021.