by Tom Lang
Deep in the forest near his home in the village of St .Andrä, Austrian artist Johann Feilacher steadily works large pieces of oak into sculpture. In his secluded outdoor studio he appears to have made an arrangement with his materials. It is as if the trees have agreed to reveal essential secrets in exchange for being transformed into the higher state of being art. Working several pieces at once he seems to wait for an inner vision of each. Then, carving with a chain saw, he swiftly and skillfully defines the fluid expressions of the wood. Even if we reset the urge to romantizise his work we must submit to the clarity and verasity of his work. Like Brancusi, Feilacher gives us a fundamental assertion, a primary form. And like David Nash, Feilacher believes in the relevance of the inherent qualities of the wood. He is fascinated that “ wood has a structure of it’s own marked by the constant interchange of growth and decay .“ But, in a way, w hat Feilacher does with the cooperation of the wood is not sculpture making. His statements while embracing an understanding of art may be seen to be innocent, ignoring their artistic destiny. Like many of the objects form Eastern and African cultures created for ritual function, his work seems to have become sculpture by its power of presence. Feilacher has recently completed a monumental sculpture at Laumeier Sculpture Park in Saint Louis. As with most of his work, this piece is made from a single piece of wood. However this is the largest in his oeuvre and perhaps the largest solid piece of contemporary wood sculpture in existence. Securing funds to buy a section of a fallen redwood with a nine foot diameter and a thirty four foot length, Feilacher began this sculpture as a slow pilgrimage across the western states. It was perhaps the first time such a large whole section was transported across to Missouri. Its arrival nearly one week after it was bound to the flat bed of a special eighteen wheeler attracted considerable attention. Families were stopping to take group snap shots by the tree even as it set on the truck in a vacant parking lot. Construction workers were swapping big tree stories and projecting theories about the reason for such a huge visitor. Meanwhile a network of support was being formed to bring a 83 ton crane and a crew of workers to off load the tree at the sculpture site. Each event and each move was accompanied by a gathering of onlookers and self appointed documentary photographers. As the process began the curious and the helpful gathered to offer a pledge of presence, a kind of sympathetic magic. Armed with a five foot long Stihl chain saw Feilacher began the challenging process of furrowing the sculpture. His empathy for the material and the residual significance of time represented by this giant appear to have been guiding forces in this process. Following the pattern of his drawing on the surface of the tree, Feilacher traced wedge-like grooves along the entire length of the level log. Working alone horizontally, like a glass blower, Feilacher carefully rolled the sixty thousand pound tree using a small hydraulic jack. Feilacher´s saw seems to walk a tight rope as it defines with each pass an edge a crevice or a curve. Even the straightest and simplest of cuts speaks of a uniform blend of skill and concept. Acknowledging the inherent beauty of the wood, Feilacher devises a plot of minimal intervention. His completed sculpture shows each cut as a line or a stroke which seems to at once define the outer surface and release its core. The result is a section of wood that seems stilled but not static, silent but not asleep. It is as if in the cutting he catches the tree in the space between inhale and exhale. Where w hat we might image melds with w hat we see. They appear almost like a mirage of beauty where a rational observation or an objective conjecture interfere with w hat we feel to be there – like a rainbow. As it stands among the oaks, locusts, and scalars this sculpture’s colour is as powerful as its scale. But visual contrast does not account for the rich experience of this natural colour. Feilacher stripped away thousands of pounds of the outer layers of bark to expose the rich red flesh beneath. The density and natural source of this colour combine with the work’s size to produce a colour sensation that we instantly realize has no equivalent. Coincidentally, paintings of red trees at the first exhibition of the Vienna Secession where critiqued as an emblematic affirmation of the freedom of artistic expression. Feilacher’s completed work stands in a clearing in a wooded area of the park overlooking a piece by Ursula Von Ryvingsvard. It seems almost buoyant with its height and mass streamlined into a blended swirl. Filcher’s dialog with this massive column has opened the object to the viewer/participant and engage or her in a conversation with the tree. His careful intervention with the tree’s natural form and his commitment to preserving the inherent qualities in the tree have revealed a completed form that is immediately natural. Watching visitors approach the sculpture is an interesting study in the power of objects. They move slowly with an expression of awe. Typically they circle the work then move in to touch the surface sometimes measuring its width with a slight hug. Filcher’s „redwood“ is a temporary sculpture on the woodland trail with other works. Laumeier has recently made a special effort to present to the public temporal work and works that utilize natural materials and environmental forces. Under the strong and imaginative leadership of its director Beej Nierengarten-Smith the park has brought innovative and experimental work while maintaining high qualitative standards. In a sense each artist working at the park is guided by a dialogue with the other works and by the personal attention that the director focuses on the comprehensive vision for the park. Filcher’s sculpture seems to fit, even if only for a while, with its artistic neighbours.
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