Exuberant eccentricity distinguishes the work of Garry Knox Bennett, whose unconventional furniture incorporating design and sculpture is on display in the exhibition Made in Oakland: The Furniture of Garry Knox Bennett. This is the first large-scale retrospective of the Oakland furniture maker's 30-year career.
The exhibition features more than 80 pieces of furniture created from unique combinations of unexpected materials. These range from large-scale cabinets and trestle tables to playful clocks and ingenious lamps, and are accompanied by 60 smaller pieces-boxes and bowls, jewelry and roach clips. The exhibition also includes unfinished pieces that illuminate Bennett‚s use of band saw, drill press and milling machine to create unusual effects, and samples of materials he has employed.
In her foreword to the exhibition catalog, American Craft Museum Director Holly Hotchner says that over the past three decades, Garry Knox Bennett has evolved from a rebellious self-taught woodworker challenging the canons of the establishment to become one of the country's most important and influential furniture makers.
Originally a sculptor, Bennett continues to use organic forms. A wavy line, cut with a band saw, is characteristic of many of his pieces. He pioneered the use of aluminum and steel in furniture. He has been influenced by Japanese craft, in particular Japanese wooden tansu chests with their numerous ordered compartments, prominent metal hardware and emphasis on the beauty of materials. His work incorporates humor and rule-breaking, for example in his Redneck Son of Bow-Wow, Cluck-Cluck Bench, with its ends that suggest the heads of chickens and dogs in profile, or his 1990 Table with each of the legs different from the others.
Bennett's early work was relentless in its critique of „technoweenies,‰ his term for those who were obsessed with technically sophisticated woodworking. His Nail Cabinet of 1979 was pivotal in the history of contemporary furniture making, the ultimate challenge to the quest for technical purity. He created the cabinet for the Contemporary Artisans Gallery in San Francisco using the most sophisticated craftsmanship, then drove a bent 16p nail into the upper door and surrounded it with hammer marks on the polished surface. Some viewers were outraged, to the point that the nail was stolen from the cabinet and had to be replaced. But it was a defining moment, heralding the new spirit of iconoclasm in the world of art.
In the 1980s, Bennett was a pioneer in incorporating a range of unconventional materials in the creation of furniture, including plywood, aluminum, brass, plastic and ColorCore Formica. ColorCore Desk, 1984, is considered to be the definitive piece of his career. In the desk he reversed the accepted hierarchy of materials, using rosewood for the interior of the drawers and aluminum and ColorCore˜a color-permeated laminate newly developed by the Formica Corporation˜for the exterior surfaces. The asymmetrical structure, with one cylindrical leg of shiny aluminum and the other a triangular wedge covered with ColorCore, includes drawers faced with an intricate pattern made from sheets of laminated blue, red and yellow ColorCore cut at 45-degree angles.
Bennett was educated in painting and sculpture at the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland, California. In the 1960s, drawing upon his metalworking skills, he founded a metal plating business that specialized in handmade roach clips and jewelry. In the early 1970s he built clocks and later broadened his repertoire to include furniture. Today he is one of the foremost furniture makers in the country, and his work has been collected and exhibited widely. He is represented in the collections of the Smithsonian Institution‚s Renwick Gallery, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Oakland Museum of California and many private collections.
American Craft Museum curator Ursula Ilse-Neuman says Bennett has consistently expanded traditional boundaries to make furniture a form of artistic expression. She adds, The irreverent spirit of the 1960s resounds through his work, as he challenges convention with dramatically contrasting shapes, the adroit use of color, and unexpected combinations of hardwoods, copper, ivory, steel, synthetics, and glass.
A 228-page catalog, edited by Ursula Ilse-Neuman and published by the American Craft Museum, accompanies the exhibition. The catalog includes more than 300 color illustrations and essays by art critic Arthur Danto, furniture historian Edward Cooke and Ursula Ilse-Neuman.
The exhibition was organized by the American Craft Museum and curated by Ursula Ilse-Neuman. Project coordinator at the Oakland Museum of California is Suzanne Baizerman, OMCA Curator of Decorative Arts.
Garry Knox Bennett,
Black Buffet, 1994,
Walnut, paint, PVC;
Cr. Steven Dubin, Brookline, Mass.