Martha Whittington’s With the Grain: Works on Paper, at Sandler Hudson Gallery through March 5, is an exquisite homage to the many virtues of wood: a primal material from which come the human creations of paper, furniture, furniture veneer and lumber for construction, to name only a few end products from trees as transformed after being harvested from nature.
Whittington focuses mostly on metaphors of origin; she has hand-embossed elegant sheets of Reeves BFK paper with the grain of hickory, poplar and mahogany. These are not components of Reeves BFK (it’s possible that Whittington means Rives BFK, which is a printmaking paper made from 100% cotton, but I’ll use her spelling throughout). The point is that we are looking at two ends of an overall process, even if with different materials. Most paper is wood-based, despite the numerous other materials from which it can be produced. The metaphor works even if the need for archival materials and preference for sculptural wood have taken away the literal connection.
The realization that the artifice refers to process rather than to product is reinforced by the adjacent MB315 (the initials stand for “mahogany branches”), sculptures that replicate the geometry of branches without trying to imitate their appearance. This creation of obviously artificial trees is carried to the point of comedy in a miniature trunk-and-branch (or perhaps an abstracted twig) displayed on a mahogany base as though it were a trophy in QB215.
Layers of allusion quickly multiply. Whittington has used a straight edge to tear equal width strips from a sheet of Reeves BFK which she has then rolled around one another (a Victorian craft known as quilling) to produce a disk that signifies tree rings. This trope plays out in several different pieces — the lozenge shapes that form the twigs or miniature trees of QB215 are quilled, thus giving unseen rings to the fictional tree parts they represent.
The most effective works in the exhibition, however, combine less than obvious allusion with exquisite formal beauty. The rectangular shapes cut into a series of 20″ x 20″ works on hand-embossed paper refer to the proportions of the maximum number of planks that can be produced from a tree trunk in sizes designed for specific purposes — but the arrangement of geometric forms also recalls the geometric tondo paintings of Mondrian-influenced modernists, minus Mondrian’s primary colors.
The dialogues between raw material and result go on throughout the exhibition, with a floor sculpture that may remind some of the uses of wood veneer in furniture, although that isn’t Whittington’s specific intention. More wall pieces refer to mortise and tenon joints in woodworking, without involving actual wood any thicker than veneer.
The use of mahogany, hickory and poplar throughout is, again, a connection between structural and decorative uses of material — the grain of poplar timber is used to hand-emboss the Reeves BFK sheets of BJ315 and BJ515, each of which consists twinned rectangles of paper inlaid with thin slabs of mahogany wood.
It’s left to the viewer to discern whether the commonplace timber forming the invisible bracing structure for a luxurious, albeit very thin, surface layer is social commentary. Whittington’s past interests would suggest otherwise.