If it's pretty, can it be art? May 07, 2017 18:43

I was discussing a review of a Dale Chihuly exhibition at the de Young museum a few years ago with a 30-something architect.  I was relating that though I had some reservations about the depth of the artistic experience the exhibition provoked (these were large room-filling works containing hundreds of often quite large and stunning hand-blown pieces of glass — in each work), I was surprised at the rejection of the local art critic of the work having much value at all. In my memory of the critique, he wrote at length trying to explain himself, with what I thought were less than compelling arguments.  Basically he seemed to be saying that beauty cannot comment on the human condition.

The reaction of my conversation partner was that when she was in school the overriding theme of the art instructors was: if it’s pretty, it can’t be art.


This summation struck me, and upon reflection of all I had seen in the last dozen years made a great deal of sense.

Artists are the great divining rods of society, sensing where we are going before we know it ourselves, expressing reactions that we aren’t yet fully aware of.  But of course, good and great art is more than just being an expression of its time.

Artists, of their time, have recently brought us many visions of our massive failures as individuals and as a species, failures often magnified by powerful technologies. 

Many works initially derive a great deal of power by being very much of their time, but if they are mostly this, as times change they lose some of their strength. I think we can see this with some of the mid and late 20th Century artists whose once burning strengths now can feel a bit diminished as the challenges they once presented, challenges that then caused us to re-evaluate ourselves with a greater awareness, have now become mainstream.

What happens to the power of a comment on society when society no longer reflects the comment?  Art needs to be more than this.

I think the definition of what is art is easy: it is what gives us an artistic experience; that is, an experience that brings us beyond ourselves.  It’s defining what gives us a valid artistic experience that’s difficult.  

Beauty can give us an artistic experience; it can definitely make us pause, even sometimes make us cry — and leave us unable to explain why we are struck down with such emotion.

But is this beauty we see or merely something shiny? We are often betrayed by shiny objects.

I’m reluctant to admit this (because I think it’s part of the trap he’s laying), but this is exactly the issue the work of Jeff Koons deals with.

I succumbed to an opportunity to view his retrospective at the Pompideu Center; it was shown alongside a retrospective of Marcell Duchamp’s work.  This made perfect sense.  I finally got it.  

Shiny object: kitsch or valid?  Large shiny object, hand crafted, expensive materials, large price tag, desired and vetted by many: still kitsch — or valid? Or maybe just asking these questions is your artistic experience. Or maybe it’s thinking that maybe we could be so insipid as a culture (or a person) we don’t know what a valid emotion is — is our artistic experience?

We don’t know what love is. Lust, or infatuation — or maybe it’s the real thing.

We might be leery of love, having been betrayed, but sometimes it is the real thing.  Can we see it, can we believe it?

If it’s pretty, can it be art?

I think so.

The Nature of Craft August 17, 2016 10:27

This is the thing I'm on about with craft.  The integration of movement with the personality; when one practices with intent, eventually movement and personality are indistinguishable. Movement is internalized so that there is no differentiation between thought and intended result; they are simultaneous.  There is loss of detachment and such a total focus that it allows the practitioner to shut off the noise, and go outside themselves and the daily travails. There are many ways to achieve this, though almost all require a conscious, repetitious practice with clear intent to achieve. When done for craft, objects result which can bring a heightened awareness to the user, which can expand the users awareness often proportional to the level of skill and intent by the maker.

WHAT IS THE BEST FINISH FOR WOOD? Part IV. June 23, 2015 18:10

How About Varnish?

Varnish gives very good film protection.  The best formulations are hard, but not brittle, very abrasion resistant, and immune to common edible solvents.   Up until 20 years or so it was probably the best finish you could put on.

But it is so difficult to work with.

Applying it has 3 major drawbacks:

The first is that varnish does not chemically bond with the previous coat of varnish.  It must form a mechanical bond.  This means that the previous coat must be pretty thoroughly sanded to guarantee that the next coat sticks to it. Now most finishes are sanded between at least some of the coats, so this doesn’t make varnish much different than many other finishes in this respect. The main problem is that, since the coats of varnish are not chemically blended into a homogenous film, you can sand through one or more layers and there will be a visible line where this happens — which cannot be erased or blended.  All the coats must be sanded all the way back to bare wood to eliminate this line.  Since you must sand between coats for bonding, and it is hard to brush layers of consistent thickness (and it’s not easy to spray), which will require a lot of large-block sanding to level the surface, there is a good chance that you will sand through a layer before you are done.

The second drawback is that it is slow drying, so it has plenty of time to catch dust as it sets up.  This means that all the dust nibs must be sanded out between coats (you’re sanding anyway, but you must be thorough enough not to miss any), and the last coat has to be rubbed out in a meticulous sequence of abrasives to get rid of the nibs and give a proper sheen.

Which brings us to the last drawback: it doesn’t rub out easily. And if you’re using polyurethane, it actually doesn’t rub out at all.  The final coat will have to be wet sanded (there are different procedures for this depending on who you’re talking to) through 3 or 4 grades of sandpaper, not stopping before at least 600 grit, followed by 0000 steel wool, and then possibly pumice and rottenstone, or their equivalent, depending on how much sheen you want.  And all this must be done in one direction;  any variation in direction or length of stroke will show.  And if you cut through the top layer, you’re going to have to strip the entire finish and start over.  

Polyurethane is worse. The problem with polyurethane is that it will not blend or “flow”. The minute scratches from each grit are preserved.   The final rub out with steel wool and polishing compounds will not remove these, so you are not going to get a glossy surface.  The best you can get is a satin — which will also show every lapse in your technique. Some varnishes and film finishes can be buffed using a power buffer, the heat of friction and force causing the finish to “flow”, filling the minute scratches.  Not so with polyurethane.

With the number of finishes available, which by the way, are also often lower in VOC’s (toxic fumes) — did I mention the VOC’s? — that are equal in protection and far easier to apply, the use of varnish for furniture has fallen off considerably.


        next: oil-and-varnish

WHAT IS THE BEST FINISH FOR WOOD? Part III June 08, 2015 18:15

Why Use Tung Oil?

Tung oil, unlike linseed oil, will dry to a film.  When thoroughly dry it can be sanded to a white powder, a common test for a dry finish (though it can still easily clog sandpaper). And when dry it is hard but not brittle, showing good scratch resistance, no chipping, little denting. And it’s non-toxic to both the maker and the user, all qualities making it a very attractive alternative.

There are, however, a couple hurdles to get over when using it.

The first is its drying time.  Each coat of Un-polymerized tung oil takes at least 48 hours, but more probably 3+ days and up to 2 weeks to dry depending on the weather (I suspect that, like urushi lacquer, it likes hot somewhat humid conditions).  This obviously is a problem for the professional woodworker.

This time can be shortened to maybe 24 hours to re-coat (though if you want to dry sand it may be two days or more) with the use of polymerized tung oil.  This is tung oil that has been heated to begin the polymerizing — drying — process.  

The second hurdle is its application; while low tech, it can be a real pain and labor intensive.  The film that provides your protection must be built up in very thin layers, requiring repeated application. And if you fail to wipe all the oil off after applying it, the resulting film will be dull and not want to dry.

And since polymerized tung oil is really thick and hard to apply, it’s difficult to apply in a really thin coat, and even harder to wipe dry.

So, here’s what you need to do to successfully apply (polymerized) tung oil: apply a really thin coat, heated by its application (i.e. vigorous rubbing), left to set only long enough so that there is resistance to its removal (more rubbing) — 2 to 10 minutes usually.  Then totally, totally wiping it off until the rag has no resistance. At this point the surface will look dry; the next day it will look shiny.  If the surface is shiny when you leave it, the next day it will be dull and you’ll have to remove it (you left oil on the surface). Repeat 6 to 12 times.

Needless to say this process is very labor intensive and had been a real deterrent — for me anyway— to using tung oil. But in the last few years a new tool has appeared that mitigates many of the difficulties found in applying tung oil: an applicator pad of microfiber called SURBUF™ that fits on random orbit sanders (with hook-and-loop pads).  Less than a teaspoon of polymerized tung oil put on the pad is enough to cover an entire table top (and is the right amount). Application takes maybe 2 - 3 minutes and some heat is built up in the friction of the pad; and since this is a thin coat, wiping it off takes only a few minutes. So you can apply a coat in 5 - 10 minutes.  This makes the use of tung oil much more feasible.

When first applying tung oil I think the first 2 coats do need to be applied in generous amounts with a rag, as the oil needs to saturate the wood, but once the grain is filled and the wood sealed, the buffer technique can be used to apply additional coats until the desired level of sheen and protection is achieved.

Perhaps some oil-and-varnish finishes might be able to give greater protection and ease of application, but so far with these oil/varnish mixtures I have found that it has been hard to control the sheen when trying to get sufficient protection.  They are also heavy on solvents and tend to be high in VOC’s.  This perhaps is the final reason (and maybe it was the first) I moved to tung oil; it is non toxic, both in application and when dry. 


     next: varnish



WHAT IS THE BEST FINISH FOR WOOD? Part II June 03, 2015 17:00

Why not Linseed Oil?

Well, quite simply because you cannot build a film with it that will enable you to control the amount of sheen, or the degree of protection (or much of any protection, really).

And it has some other drawbacks, too.

Raw linseed oil basically will not dry; it is essentially the same as the flaxseed oil taken as a dietary supplement, though with contaminants. Boiled linseed oil must be used for wood finishing.

While linseed oil will bring out the grain and warm the color of wood, I find that it provides little protection against liquids, dirt, scratching.  And while it gives some sheen, it cannot be built up for greater protection or a slightly shinier surface.   Attempts to build a film by applying it heavily and wiping it less thoroughly will result in in a goopy mess that never dries, never hardens.

It is useful for darkening the color of wood; certain woods will darken quite a bit and quite quickly when finished with linseed oil, Cherry in particular.

But for this reason, never use linseed oil to finish antiques; it is a restorer’s nightmare. It usually darkens the old wood unnaturally — and it cannot be removed or the wood lightened.

It also contains metallic dryers, and while in the lexicon of toxins you can encounter while working wood this might be further down the list, it still calls for attention when using it. 

        next: why tung oil?



Choosing Oil, Oil-and-Varnish, Varnish, Lacquer, Shellac, or Catalyzed Finishes

So what is the best finish?

Tung oil (preferably polymerized) for everyday hard use items, especially seating.

Catalyzed varnish for special formal use furniture, particularly table tops; and for kitchen and bath cabinetry.


Unless you want to know why I think that, you don’t have to read any further....

There are two types of wood finish: penetrating (oil), and film producing (such as varnish).

Penetrating finishes bring out the life in the grain of the wood like no other finish. The moment oil is first applied to the raw wood of a piece of furniture is one moment that the woodworker lives for.  You can actually see light within the wood and you can still see and feel the texture and grain of the wood.

However, with the exception of tung oil, oils do not provide a significant protective film.  And while tung oil can provide good protection, it requires at least 8, preferably 12 or more hand rubbed coats sanded to as fine as 800 between each coat for a significant film. You can build a finish as thick as varnish, but it will start to look like a varnish, and there will be increasing distance between you and the wood, and an increasing focus on the sheen of the film on top of the wood.

Why bother?  Well, with the exception of table tops, as little as three coats — on a chair, for instance, or table top accessories — will give good protection from dirt, enhance the grain of the wood, and preserve its tactile qualities. Unlike a film finish, it will get better with age. And on convoluted surfaces — such as a chair — it can be easier to apply than many finishes. It does penetrate deeply, and dries to a film that remains resilient and not brittle.

Thus the chipping of a film finish that begins at the edges and spreads first as a ragged white edge that soon turns dark as it fills with dirt, allowing the raw wood now exposed to get stained a different color than the portion that remains finished — does not happen with tung oil.

Table tops, however, are their own animal. They are subject to heat, stains chemicals, abrasion, and are easily inspected in the horizontal light they are usually seen in.  My opinion is that for a daily use, family table, a tung oil finish will look better in 20 years than a hard film finish — many times, within 5 years. It will, however, require some attention, a bit of maintenance, and every so often a going over.  

If this is done, the patina will improve, the beauty of the wood will remain, and a record of the life of the family that used it will be subtly recorded.  Alternately, you use a table finished with a hard film for 5 or 10 years and then have it totally stripped and refinished (the stripping process is very hard on the wood)— or just get rid of it!

            next: Why Not Linseed Oil?