The Forest and the Trees: Wood Carvings of Leroy Setziol

Leroy Setziol sculpture

Installation photos of Leroy Setziol exhibition. Photos: Cody Maxwell. Courtesy of Portland Art Museum.

Coming into contact with the wood carvings of Leroy Setziol is like entering a forest, but abstracted. Twenty-three of his works are currently on view at the Portland Art Museum, until October 30, 2016.

The forests of the Pacific Northwest, which Setziol called home for over fifty years, do not appear as wood. The trees are obvious, but they are covered over with scales of bark, which are covered over again with seasons of moss growth, lichens, and even whole ferns. When the trees finally fall, their wood eventually becomes exposed at the root, but are soon covered over again— with dirt and stones held captive in the twisted dendritical supply lines, with the fruiting bodies of mushrooms, and the eventual black rot, that returns the entire forest back into the dirt below.

Leroy Setziol Sculpture

Installation photos of Leroy Setziol exhibition. Photos: Cody Maxwell. Courtesy of Portland Art Museum.

Leroy Setziol’s carvings, on the other hand, show the substantive strength of the wood in full display. Oiled to exhibit the grains, and characteristically unsanded, Setziol’s work acknowledges the material of the wood as primary to the act of sculpture. The effort of the artist is evident, as he touches the wood little by little at the end of his chisel, leaving a preponderance of marks until the design has shaped the wood into the piece of art.

And yet, in Setziol’s work, that element of the forest comes back. The motifs are overlapping, as the rigid geometries of his style create a panoply of layered images. As he takes apart the tree itself, creating individual blocks and shapes that are then reunited into a larger panel, that chaotic cycle of the cthonic darkness of the forest understories is re-established. Within those abstracted, idealistic grains, the modernist grids come full circle to resemble the natural world again.

Leroy Setziol Sculpture

Installation photos of Leroy Setziol exhibition. Photos: Cody Maxwell. Courtesy of Portland Art Museum.

Setziol’s work is now all over the Pacific Northwest, in businesses and hotels, in churches and in homes. As he pulled wood from the outside, he introduces it into the inside, creating a vital connection between the two opposing forms of space that those in the region inhabit. And in a time period in which reclaimed, raw boards are in fashion for interior architectural design, his carvings give an extraordinary sense of detail to his architectural features, missing from many contemporary spaces. One can imagine the interior spaces in which Setziol’s work still hangs containing a warm vitality, a sense of the wood as alive, not present in simple timbers or planks. It is the forest within his work, which draws a person in, just as many are drawn to the Northwest.

By Adam Rothstein

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