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.