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Some of us are always conscious of representing our family in the world. Some defy this sentiment, some are apathetic, and some people embrace the role. Sculptor Michael Ferris falls into the latter group with Extra-Human, currently on view at the Center for Art in Wood. The exhibition is full of literal representations of his family and loved ones.
These representations come in a few different forms, like oil paintings on canvas and ink on Bristol paper, but the main medium here is a series of wooden sculptures. While not exactly a retrospective, the sculptures, curated by Suzanne Ramljak, span more than two decades' worth of woodworking. From the artist’s 1990s school era to 2021, the evolution of his work fills the gallery with its larger-than-life qualities.
Color and motion
Busts of childhood friends, poet-collaborators, and family members burst with colorfully layered bits of wood. Ferris uses intarsia woodworking, a mosaic-like technique that lends itself to reusing discarded materials, helping ease the artist’s environmental concerns around wood.
Color is central to the show, rich in dazzling but not especially bright shades of teal, vermillion, orchid, and many browns. The hues come from pigmented grout, sometimes invoking geometric patterns, sometimes buzzing with a chaotic vibrance.
A bust titled Allen blankly stares at the exhibition from a side wall. Rounded patterns give it an implied sense of motion. Slicked-back hair looks graspable in strands that bulge from the imposing size of the sculpture's skull. Magnitude gives an authority to the stoic head.
A larger love
As blown-up as these busts feel, the full studies in figuration take this perspective even further. Rosemarie with Two Cats enlarges Ferris's wife and cats to nearly six-and-a-half and three-and-a-half feet, respectively. They seem swollen with affection, patterned in warm shades of brown that impart a familiar love. Replicated, symmetrical textures in these and other works build up features in ways that hint at how they move on the real-life subjects.
Towering over most gallery viewers, Toufic is a centerpiece of sorts. In it, the artist's uncle wears a wearied look. Intarsia gives dimension in wrinkles and sashes of the subject's shirt, many-patterned in a maximalist way. Accompanying this sculpture are ink drawings, schematic in quality. Though their details don't entirely match the finished project, the drawings give a peek into how the sentimental monument was brainstormed.
Although they aren't sculptured subjects, Ferris's parents appear in oil paintings. His father's portrait, Mike, is especially interesting, a small but realistic study. The elder Ferris is shown from the neck up, the direction of his eyes obscured in shadow. The temples of his bald skull shine with indirect lighting. All three of these paintings are encased in inlaid wooden frames, checkered in various mellow tones.
Generally, the work in Extra-Human maintains a familiar, loving thread throughout its 18 pieces. The intricate composition of Ferris's sculptures exudes an engaging warmth, and the representations of his family might challenge the way you look at your own loved ones, and make you want to pick up the phone.
What, When, Where
Extra-Human: The Art of Michael Ferris. By Michael Ferris. Through April 24, 2022, at the Center for Art in Wood, 141 N. 3rd Street, Philadelphia. (215) 923-8000 or centerforartinwood.org.
The Center for Art in Wood is an ADA-compliant venue.
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