Wheeling out New Work

The current New York Magazine features a cover story about Jeff Koons:

In January of 2012 I came across an article on low-tech magazine’s website about Chinese Wheelbarrows which I found quite fascinating and which led me to further study of those wonderful devices. I posted up on the Carpentry Study Group forum about Chinese wheelbarrows and a few members commented that they would be neat things to make at some point.

Then in March of last year, by strange coincidence, a representative from Jeff Koons contacted me asking if I could possibly make a Chinese Wheelbarrow as part of a larger sculpture installation. They wanted it to be made in an authentic manner and using wood preferably from China or Southeast Asia. It’s delightful when one’s own passion about some odd thing, like Chinese wheelbarrows, is suddenly given a chance to manifest in reality.

After a meeting in Manhattan at the Koons studio, I commenced work on a drawing and design and, after further discussion, constructed a prototype wheelbarrow in basswood. The piece I made was based entirely upon a photograph of a Chinese wheelbarrow of unknown age and provenance. As I was prototyping, the first piece was not fully detailed and did not take especially long to make, delivered after about three weeks of shop work.

After Koons staff members went over the design carefully, and after engineering and fabricating the other components which were part of the installation, they returned to me with their proposed changes to the wheelbarrow, which amounted to a slight re-shaping of a couple of parts and an overall scaling down of the piece by 5%. They asked me how long I would need to construct the wheelbarrow, and I thought 6 weeks would be enough. It actually was a slight underestimate, as an 8-week build time would have been more appropriate. Getting 8 weeks into 6 required that I work for about 35 days straight, until I was on the verge of going batty – you know how it goes – and then made delivery of the piece, just a day later than promised. The Koons people took the piece and over the next week or two fitted it to a sculpture. The piece was installed at the Gagosian Gallery in Manhattan on May 9th. Here’s the completed sculpture installation – click on the image for a larger view:

Hulk (wheelbarrow) 2004-2013 © Jeff Koons

I imagine some readers might find the juxtaposition of what looks like a plastic inflatable hulk and a Chinese farm implement a bit unexpected. I was also surprised when I first saw the proposed piece. I can’t say I understand the meaning of the pop art figure in this context, but then again I can’t claim to have much understanding of the fine art world in general. The Hulk figure, while it appears to be made of plastic, is actually made of bronze. It is so highly detailed and realistic that even up close it appears to be an inflatable plastic doll. I respect the standard of meticulous craftsmanship which is characteristic of the work coming out of the Koon’s studio.

I have to say it was an interesting experience for me to walk into a major gallery in New York and see something I had made as part of an installation on display. Kind of a ‘can’t quite believe what I’m seeing‘ moment. And it was interesting to observe gallery patrons walking by and looking at – or looking past, depending – the piece, and overhearing snippets of conversation among the cognoscenti. A strange dream to be sure.

Making the wheelbarrow was a fun and interesting project. The wheel, which is completely functional, was the most challenging aspect, and took more than 50% of project time. It spins as smoothly and tightly as a well-adjusted bicycle wheel. The spokes attach to the rim pieces, termed felloes – using externally-wedged dovetail joints, which is a common technique used on Chinese wheelbarrows made, presumably, without access to a blacksmith. The wheel’s hub, or wheelstock, I turned on a lathe and fitted with lignum vitae bushings and axle. The axle has an eccentric mounting system so that the wheel can be slightly adjusted vertically up and down by 10mm, so as to get the fit to the sculpture’s ‘hands’ as optimal as possible. The frame and barrow are made from reclaimed Burmese teak. All the joinery is pegged and wedged using lignum vitae. The finish is nothing but hand-planed.

There are actually 4 pieces in total to be made, so that is one down and three to go, and I’m starting on #2 in another week.

Thanks for coming by the Carpentry Way, and if you’re in Manhattan in the next month or so, I’d be honored if you’d drop by the Gagosian Gallery in Chelsea and have a look.

24 thoughts on “Wheeling out New Work

  1. Excellent work Chris. Handmade, beautiful and fully functional. You are an inspiration to study, learn and produce items of true value. I read the wheelbarrow post and was fascinated. Will you post any of your drawings for this piece? Or detail photos? The wheel and wheel carriage look very interesting. Thanks for sharing.

    Scott Thomas

  2. Koon's unique pieces go for several million dollars, beyond my ken or desire. To each his own, but if I had that money I'd commission a Chinese study from you, similar to rooms in the Minneapolis Institute of Art.
    Bruce Mack

  3. Any accreditation from Gagosian or are you just another anonymous craftsman subsumed by a name artist? I hope you were well compensated.

  4. Nice. Surely part of the statement is the juxtaposition of modern, entertainment minded, mass produced, cheap culture and real craftsmanship. Congratulations.

    Just so I know how to plan my visit, will all four pieces be on display at the same time?

    Harlan Barnhart

  5. Scott,

    thanks for the kind word and questions. Unfortunately I cannot reveal any further details about the piece. The images are carefully controlled by the artist.


  6. Craig,

    thanks for the comment, and no, all credit goes to the commissioning artist. That's the deal and I understood that from the beginning. I am glad to be part of the process.


  7. Harlan,

    great to hear from you. The four pieces will be installed in separate locations and in concert with other pieces – not even sure which countries are involved frankly as far as gallery location goes. There will only be one Hulk (wheelbarrow) on display wherever the exhibit containing that theme is installed.


  8. Charlie,

    many thanks for the comment. I think the thing with whatever kind of art it is, boils down to whether we like it or are at least stimulated in some way by looking at it.


  9. Chris

    I think Harlan hit the nail on the head: its the contrast! As such, its no wonder the readers of this blog find the wheelbarrow very attractive, even lovely, while the Hulk leaves them cold. Its a nice piece of work on your part and maybe deeper on Mr Koons part than it first seems.


  10. Tom,

    I appreciate the props. I imagine there are people out there though who would be enthralled with the hulk and barely notice the woodwork. I'm glad I could contribute some woodwork to the gallery – the wheelbarrow is the only wooden item in the entire space.


  11. “Art is whatever you can get away with.” – Marshall McLuhan

    What an opportunity. I don't think I have a specific opinion about the arguments over the artistic statement or purpose. You get to work through the concept of the wheelbarrow on close to ideal circumstances and I'm sure the income allows you a little space to pursue other ideas alongside it.
    I find the support structure a little puzzling. I don't know what to call it, but the load-bearing structure from the axle to the box. I suspect if I actually had it in front of me it would make more sense, but it doesn't look like it can hold that much weight from here.

  12. Adam,

    thanks for your observations. It was, and continues to be an excellent project with which to be engaged.

    The front carrier is a triangulated arrangement. The wheel forks attach to the frame with trapped sliding dovetails. The front vertical struts are mortised, tenoned, and pegged at each end, and the horizontals are actually two-piece splines, driven against each other to form a brace. There are a pair of thick central beams running underneath the barrow lengthwise, not visible in the above picture, to which the fork and wheel front struts attach. Thus, the load from the barrow is transmitted through the frame, then forks and struts, to the axle and wheel.

    The arrangement of the parts was dictated by the configuration of the original unit as seen in a single photograph, and I couldn't wander far from that. That was the primary design constraint and adhering to that picture was very important to the folks at Koons. In fact the slight re-shaping of a couple of parts mentioned in the text above was to bring the shape of two of the pieces -the wheel forks and main carrier beams- into closer shape-match with the original in the photo.

    I examined several other antique Chinese wheelbarrows to see how they are put together, including one which is stored by someone in my shop building, about 50 feet from my bench. Most of them have fairly crude joinery, and suffer from wonky wheels. I think they were made by farmers for the most part. There are designs with more sophisticated framing systems, but the point here, again, was to adhere closely to the example in the photograph.

    I did get to sort the joinery details out in this piece as I saw fit. I designed and added a knee brace also to the rear support legs while the original used some crudely twisted wire like you see on some frame saws. Some barrows use braces, some use cables.

    The wheelbarrow is fully functional and I'm confident it could carry a couple hundred pounds, though the soft teak would not stand up to the actual wear and tear of use for too long I suspect.


Anything to add?