Relishing the Rugged and Rustic

The work of British sculptor Tim Stead echoes the texture and contour of tree and stone

`THE tree is my master" Antoni Gaudi, the remarkable Barcelona architect, once said. British artist Tim Stead might well echo the thought. Stead works in wood. What he makes does not fit neatly into conventional categories. He notes that in art schools (at the outset of his career he attended two) the sculpture departments do not brook furniture-making, any more than furniture-making departments encourage sculpture. He makes both, and it is not always clear - or meant to be - where one begins and the other ends, in his work.

At his distinctly rural home and workshop in the Borders Region of Scotland, he shows us a new piece taking shape in the garden. It may be included in a show to be held in 1992 or '93 at the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh. Still in unfixed parts, the piece gives a glimpse of his working procedures.

Clearly it is a seat. That is hardly a surprise: We've already seen in his workshop a number of the highly original chairs he and his assistants produce. But standing on each side of this seat are two enormous upright wings of timber, planks sawn out of the same tree, standing like bookends. They widen at the top. Their grain, exposed by the saw cut, is a visual record of the tree's growth and stature. These two elements take this piece out of the realm of furniture, however unusual, into an image of mo numental proportion that can probably best be called "sculpture."

Stead likes the fact that the viewer, approaching such a piece, can step quickly over the question "what is it?" and then enjoy it unpretentiously. What it does not do is announce itself as a work of art, a kind of self-conscious presentation or isolated monument, demanding a special mind-set in the viewer. It's a seat.

Wood - and at the present it is elm particularly that Stead uses - is the common factor in his multifaceted work. But it is wood that is not so cut, finished, carved, geometricized, and varnished that it has lost its primitive tree-ness. It remembers the tree: You can still see where the bark was in a rugged contour left unsawn and unplaned. In a bold and organic upright, you are reminded of the tree's branching and natural curve. Similarly, quarried stone, which is not too squared or polished, can reme mber its bed.

In fact, Stead sees much in common between rock and wood, and when the North Sea Oil Industry in Aberdeen commissioned him to do the wood-work for its Memorial Chapel in the city's St. Nicholas Kirk, he named the forty identical chairs that are part of this scheme "Strata." In their backs are incorporated numerous laminated strips of different woods, with different colors. They suggest the geological formation of rocks in which oil is found.

THE parallels Stead finds between wood and stone were intriguingly exploited in work he did for the earliest chronological section of a show in Glasgow called "Scotland Creates: 5000 Years of Art and Design." This was a recreation of part of what has been described as the best preserved prehistoric village in Northern Europe - at Skara Brae, Orkney.

One reason for the preservation of the six houses and one workshop (dated from 3100-2500 BC) at Skara Brae is that there were no trees on the island at that time, so everything, including beds and cupboards, were constructed of stone. Stead's imaginative use of wood to evoke the grain and texture of this ancient stonework demonstrates intriguingly his notion of fraternity between wood and stone.

His interest in archaeological remains does, however, predate the commission for this exhibition piece; in fact it is one of the main springs of his small sculptures carved in burr elm.

These natural protuberances on the trunks of trees offer a sculptural block that strongly confronts outer with inner. The rough barky exteriors of these burrs are like mounded, knobbly landscapes in themselves.

When Stead carves into them, through the sapwood to harder wood of different color and texture, turning them into enigmatic coffers of strange form, he is imaginatively conducting an archaeological dig into the history, the past life, of the tree. He cuts recesses and compartments inside them, into which are pigeon-holed peculiar carved or sliced forms which seem reminiscent of something, but you are not quite sure what.

The contained shapes and forms in these lidded sculptures are like buried artifacts, or nuts secreted in their shells, or bones. When the lid is put back on, Stead enjoys the fact that it is the viewer's memory and imagination only which can now reveal what the interior forms are like.

AT Skara Brae, the ruins of the village had remained invisible below the lumped and grassy windswept landscape until archaeologists went to work on them. Even when the village was inhabited, however, these houses were actually dug into the land. Only their roofs were at all visible. The empathy between these buried, cavern-like houses and Stead's burr elm sculpture is evident. And Stead is interested in art as living environment.

His work as a whole crosses the barriers between "art" and "living." He sells his furniture to private individuals furnishing their homes. And in spite of the prime- val and even aggressive appearance of these weighty tables and chairs, they are usable as well as being astonishing images. Indeed his massive chairs - though called "Gnasher," "Corset," and "Skeletal" - are actually supportively comfortable to sit on.

THE somewhat over-the-top character of some of Stead's furniture, impressively displayed in a Glasgow cafe, the Cafe Gandolfi, which he furnished in 1979, may be the expression of his ebullient character. The experience of going into his home, where his work seems to take over his living space, is a mix of the surprising, the heart-warming, the funny, and the slightly intimidating.

Wood in Stead's hands evokes such unlikely and diverse associations as backwoods-America, Art Nouveau, and the gothic - not to mention Gaudi. To the more mischievous viewer, it has sometimes suggested Walt Disney or the Flintstones or both. Stead says emphatically, that this does not please him at all.

The fact is, though, that this English-born inhabitant of rural Scotland has an exuberant and fantastic richness of imagination which might seem more characteristic of a Mediterranean artist were it not for the tradition of Northern-Grotesque which is his heritage.

While Stead objects that Disney's house-interiors are actually "Tyrolean" folk carving, there still remains something in the rusticity of his work that evokes Disney's toymaker's workshop, the hide-out of the seven dwarfs, or at least Tolkien's hobbits, elves, and gnomes. This at least seems true of Stead's tables and chairs, for all their macho gigantism.

I'm not sure that such fantastic references are as much of an insult as I imagine he thinks them. Stead's particular form of baroque exaggeration and relish of a vigorous natural material is an effective counterblast to the effete conceptualism of recent years. Sometimes hyperbole is needed.

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