Karen Ernst’s Elemental “Land, Sea, and Sky: Details from Nature”

Wednesday, November 25th, 2015 at 4:15 PM
Karen Ernst’s Elemental “Land, Sea, and Sky: Details from Nature” by Mary Birdsong

There is a serenity in Karen Ernst’s wood pieces. A tranquility borne from the simple line, the organic, the clean. Every piece in this show, whether it be a functional piece of furniture or a sculpture, is contemporary in expression yet built on the underpinnings of traditional woodworking. There is much to like in Ernst’s “Land, Sea, and Sky.” 

Ernst’s inspiration from nature is clearly articulated here, though she translates those organic elements with a firm, assertive hand. In “Tree Branch Desk,” the stylized branches are represented in the vertical sides of the desk, arranged horizontally, not vertically as they would grow. But Ernst’s control over her chosen forms does not overwhelm the objects. It elevates them. Ernst wisely lets the wood speak for itself in the top of “Desk,” a simple slab, and she even allows imperfections in the wood to remain. The drawers can be seen through the branches and simple notches create the drawer pulls.

This tension – between the natural and the controlled – is evident throughout. “Surf Sequence,” a wall-mounted sculptural piece, does not reflect a wild unfettered sea. Instead, Ernst’s treatment breaks down a body of water to reveal its most elemental function. Two long horizontal rectangles move across the wall, each having a modest swell of water (wood) coming toward the viewer. The surfaces are hand-chiseled to evoke the movement of water and painted a muted blue-green. These two narrow slices of sea perfectly capture the essence of wave movement.

It’s clear that Ernst accomplishes the attention to detail required when keeping things clean like she does. From perfect dovetail joints to small painterly details, everything is carefully thought through. In her “Wavering Grass” and “Sea Swell” wall cabinets, the stylized designs gracing the front of the boxes are also found in the back of their interiors – something for just the owner to enjoy, perhaps, or an extra treasure to show off by keeping the boxes open.

It is the small details of nature that motivate Ernst. Small impressions that resemble the space where rocks had been in the sand are featured in several pieces, including “Sea Foam Shelves” and “Cloud Table.” These empty spaces, like the spaces between the branches in “Desk,” display how negative space is just as important to our experience of nature as is positive form. We admire the branches of the tree – but also the lacy canopy they make when joined together with the open sky.

Ernst’s small sculptural works are the most appealing to the hand, for this viewer. Both “Botanical Objects” and “Nut-Root” are stylized organic forms, seedpods, or some other growing things. “Nut-Root,” crafted from carved and turned poplar, looks like an acorn finished in black milk paint. It is smooth and sophisticated, but bears a crack on one side suggesting the potential this organism has – the emerging root, perhaps even the tree.

Ernst knows when to be lush and when to be subdued. She has found the balance between the natural and the controlled, leading to works that are quiet repositories of contemplative calm.

Tuesday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sunday, 1 to 5 p.m., through Jan. 8 // Erie Art Museum, 411 State St. // 459.5477 // erieartmusem.org

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