Binding What’s Lost
Michael James Moran’s Binding What’s Lost, currently on view at Quappi Projects, is a celebration of material and, perhaps more than anything, an exercise in attentiveness. Moran is a woodworker, and his practice derives from environmental responsibility and the visual expressiveness of the lumber he selects. He creates primarily furniture; his online gallery features lamps, cabinets, and table sets made from various woods and finishes. But in Binding What’s Lost, which features over twenty of Moran’s recent wall hangings, the artist interrogates the bilateral connection between the natural world and humankind in a manner unfound in his furniture pieces. He notably works by way of bookmatching, a process of dividing wood and placing two pieces side-by-side in order to produce a mirror image of grain alignments.
By drawing attention to the innate qualities of the medium, Moran’s sculptures carry modern implications. Form—especially organic form—is heavily emphasized. Chunks of mostly untreated, discarded wood comprise Things I’ve found, things have found me (2016-8), which presents knots, knobs, and limbs of poplar or oak with little intervention from the artist. Moran affectionately numbers the Things as if they belong in a catalog—indeed, they might. These idiosyncrasies, contained in square cherry frames, have been memorialized and indexed, and captivate as much as they cofound. Moran strategically stacks and situates his findings so that if a frame contains multiple pieces of wood—and most do—the distinction between what is natural and what is manmade is blurred. For instance, in Things 6, lightning has charred three wood polygons with charcoal-colored streaks, which are emphasized by the geometric placement of parts. Moran’s touch is minimal—material reigns.
What makes Binding What’s Lost arguably more impactful than an exhibit of expert craftsmanship and arboreal beauty is Moran’s steadfast critical examination of the history and future of woodworking. Specifically, Moran examines the fate of intimate labor in Utility (2018), a series enshrining once prominent modes of function on the verge of irrelevance. Stationed within five indented frames are wooden versions of tools, namely a hammer, handsaw, crowbar, and a pair of screwdrivers. Save for the handles of the hammer and saw, wood grain compliments every turn and angle of the tools’ contours. The ability to effectively perform is called into questioned within this display as Moran, evaluating the history of his trade, asks viewers to consider the ways in which the advent of mechanization has usurped the necessity for such objects. Thematically, Utility is bolstered by the nearby Gold Rush Miner’s Hammer (2014), a wooden prospecting pick atop a reflective golden handle. The piece is situated in a frame whose black inlay may connote the dire ecological consequences imposed by the California Gold Rush.
Likewise, a row of modestly sized panels, entitled Apparitions (2015-8), affords opportunities to evaluate the corporeality of the medium. There is an undeniable liveliness brought forth by the combination of natural hues, textures, and patterns of the wood, accentuated by the doubling effect achieved from bookmatching. Devoid of any real content, Apparitions welcomes close scrutiny and visually rewards the most patient of observers—subtle shifts in the grain are abundant and indicate the rhythmic growth of the trees sourced for the objects. Moran presents little more than overlooked physical elegance of wood, this sequence functioning like a string of Rorschach tests for viewers. Apparitions encourages self-evaluation and reflection, themes that are far more overt in Into the Trees (2014), a slice of mirror wedged between two unrefined pieces of red oak.
Moran’s mixed media artworks are compelling for numerous reasons, amplified by their ambiguous status as objects. The blocks and portions of wood suspended on the gallery’s walls seem to transcend classification, yet the exhibition statement declares them as sculptures. These are not sculptures in the traditional sense. Instead, Moran’s creations evoke the legacy of postwar, late modernist trends of artmaking. In her seminal essay, “Sculpture in the Expanded Field,” (1979) Rosalind Krauss asserts that, by the turn of the 21st century, the term sculpture “is a historically bounded category and not a universal one.” For decades, sculpture was recognized as the middle ground between that which is not landscape and is not architecture. But with works like Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty (1970), a 1,500 foot-long spiral of basalt rock extending out into the Great Salt Lake from the shore, sculpture could, conceivably, be nearly anything. Krauss suggests as much, contending, “sculpture is no longer the privileged middle term between two things that it isn’t. Sculpture is rather only one term on the periphery of a field in which there are other, differently structured possibilities.” The works at Quappi Projects, which are certainly sculptural but often operate as abstract paintings or assemblages and, moreover, employ earthly components as artistic medium, explore the parameters Krauss defined some forty years earlier. In doing so, Binding What’s Lost is an analysis of sitelessness, bringing in facets of the natural world, removing them of context, and highlighting the deterioration of the ecosystem spearheaded by human activity.
These notions are perhaps nowhere as tangible than in a triad of 2018 works that carry the exhibition’s namesake. Silk is woven between vertical strips of ash, redwood, or chestnut and connected to black frames, set against black parchment against white walls. The composition in each work is vastly different, alluding that of the human form, a mountainous landscape, or conventional portraiture. Whereas these works may act as testaments to place, they in fact move beyond associations with their original localities by merely being. Krauss argues that modernist sculpture, “through the representation of its own materials or the process of its construction…depicts its own autonomy.” The Binding What’s Lost series is an investigation of the qualities and inherencies of wood. If anything, the presence of the three works elevates those characteristics of material that frequently go unseen.
The silk in Binding What’s Lost utilizes the same warp and weft pattern as the Shroud of Turin, the supposed burial cloth of Jesus of Nazareth that bears an imprint of his face. Throughout the exhibition, Moran maintains an apparent reverence for his material. Viewers are offered a multitude of shapes, textures, and visual motifs that demonstrate the breadth of wood’s capabilities and widespread application. As a result, they are hard-pressed not to admire wood and its nuances as the artist does. Moran’s keen sense of the physical totality of limber is prominent in Binding What’s Lost, an exhibition that invites visitors to pause, look, and contemplate avenues for increasing their perceptive abilities and strengthening their individual relationship with the environment.
Binding What’s Lost is on display at Quappi Projects until April 14.
Quappi Projects is located at 1520b Lytle Street, Louisville, KY 40203 and open by appointment only.
- Michael James Moran
- Quappi Projects
- Krauss, Rosalind. “Sculpture in the Expanded Field.” In The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture, edited by Hal Foster, 35-47. New York: The New Press, 1998. Originally published in October 8 (Spring, 1979).
Guest Contributor to Ruckus
Binding What’s Lost (2018). Photo courtesy, Ruckus.
Things I’ve found, things have found me (2016-8). Photo courtesy, Ruckus.
Into the Trees (2014). Photo courtesy, Ruckus.
Apparitions (2015-8). Photo courtesy, Ruckus.