The following essay is rekeyed and reprinted July 2002 with permission of Glenn Adamson and the Erie Art Museum. The essay is excerpted from the illustrated exhibition catalogue Michael Brolly: Cradle to Cradle, ISBN 0-9709282-1-1. If you have questions or comments regarding the source material, or if you wish to obtain a copy of the catalogue, please contact the Erie Art Museum directly through either this phone number or web address:


Enfant Terrible: The Work of Michael Brolly

by Glenn Adamson


Michael Brolly fits uneasily into the contemporary studio wood turning scene. His aesthetic is at odds with the dominant strains within the field: the subtle sculpting of form and figure by David Ellsworth and Bob Stocksdale, the rough muscularity of Mark Lindquist, and the controlled use of color (achieved through paint and polychrome lamination) in the work of Merryll Saylan and Virginia Dotson. Brolly's approach is arguably less aesthetically resolved than any of these, but it is also more vivid and, paradoxically, less parochial. For analogues to his work, one has to look outside the history of studio wood working's hothouse climate (although a few kindred souls among the turners, such as C. R. "Skip" Johnson, Michael Hosaluk and Mark Sfirri, do come to mind). Despite the fact that he seems to design in a purely impulsive way, Brolly fits better than most of his peers do into the mainstream of art history. In truth, his näiveté is entirely faux. And his aesthetic transgressions, though they are many, are motivated more by irony than sheer enthusiasm. In this respect, Brolly is better seen as a Post-Pop artist than as a woodworker: his delight in puns that elicit pleasurable groans from the viewer is reminiscent of the more playful brands of 1970s Warhol-ism. Even his flagrantly distasteful use of female anatomy, which seems at first to be a mark of immaturity as an artist, resonates with the paintings of 1960s artists like Mel Ramos and Tom Wesselman.

All of this is to say that unlike most studio wood turning, which has a largely unobjectionable disposition, Brolly's work has an edge. It can and does offend at times, and it is never innocuous. This much is evident from a comparison of two works in the present exhibition, made over a decade apart: Mother/Daughter; Hunter/Prey II (1992) and Cradle (2001). Both of these minimally functional sculptures exemplify Brolly:s preferred style, which is three parts surrealism: two parts science fiction film, and one part still-life naturalism. In the earlier piece, as the title suggests, both the exact identity and the relationship of the two forms is entirely unclear. Brolly invites us to project our own narrative on to the imagery (birds? spaceships?), giving us enough information to excite our imagination but not enough to pin down the work's meaning, In this particular case, the double reading suggested by the title (parent and child? devourer and soon-to-be-devoured?) makes for a potent concoction.

A similar ambiguity hovers around Brolly's most recent large-scale work, Cradle. The sinuous pointed forms that emerge from its exterior seem to be at once a nurturing image -- drawn, perhaps, from a seedpod -- and a threatening cluster of spikes, each with a blood-like tip. Extraordinary rockers curve around the form in a swirl of bent-laminated wood, giving the piece a movement and fragility that is anything but comforting. A fur liner placed in the cradle carries the ambivalence of the piece into the interior; despite its functionality, the fur adds to our feeling that this object is more like a Venus Flytrap than a crib.

Brolly's desire, to keep us guessing extends to the manner in which he creates his objects. There is today no more accomplished practitioner of "fragmental" turning, a process pioneered by Canadian artist Stephen Hogbin in which circular turnings are cut by hand, and sometimes re-attached in new configurations. (For instance, a round bowl might be cut in two and reattached at the rims to form a new bowl with a football-shaped profile.) This is a mysterious process to those who have never worked on a lathe, and even to some of those who have tried their hand at it. Brolly recalls that when he himself first saw Hogbin demonstrate his "fragmental" techniques at a 1981 symposium in Philadelphia, he thought,:"so that's how he does it, he has a giant faceplate."

Brolly had some prior experience with shop techniques at this point, having taken several courses in wood design with John Stolz. Like most wood workers of his generation, he had thought of the lathe as one tool among many during the early part of his career. He still remembers being surprised, as he puts it, when he "found out that there was this big community of people who were devoted to this machine I had found in the corner of wood shop." As it turned out, though, it was only after the encounter with "fragmental" turning that his work began to take on its own distinctive qualities. Hogbin himself was fairly explicit in his use of these techniques, tending to affix his parts to each other in such a way that their relationship to the lathe-turned circular forms remained clear. Brolly needed to distinguish himself from his point of inspiration, so he headed in the opposite direction,, obscuring the original geometry of the constituent elements. "Sometimes it might be easier to just carve the piece," he concedes, "but I like to see if I can turn it." The perverse result of his expertise is that his pieces often seem not to have come near a lathe at all, even though it remains his primary shaping tool.

The "magic trick" quality of fragmental turning suits Brolly's needs well, in that it underlines the perceptual tension that a viewer often experiences on the level of content. When Brolly is firing on all cylinders, his works are nothing less than uncanny. In the great surrealist tradition of Meret Oppenheim's fur-lined tea cup: they enter our comfort zone through the vehicle of functionality -- only to subvert our expectations and give us a serious case of the willies. This is true not only of Brolly's ambitious works like the recent Cradle, but even of his minor ones, such as his Frog Bowls (1988,1992) and his ongoing series of baseballs that take on the form of chickens, fishing weights, or snails in the interest of wordplay (1996-2001). These creations have a vitality that is quite at odds with their trivial scale and content. They have too much personality, are too animated, to be simply entertaining. And though his small-scale pieces are more cheerful and likable than his larger creatures -- with their insectoid heads, multiple breasts, and disconcertingly inhuman proportions -- they are ultimately no less bizarre. As Brolly has matured into the potential of his style and ideas, he has become more and more effective at this game. It is a measure of his achievement that nowadays, he can make even a letter opener appear sinister. This form rarely rises above its status as a craft fair trifle, but Brolly has the knack for making it seem lethal. It curves just a bit too much, it is too precise and too attenuated for comfort.

As with most brands of surrealism, Brolly's work invites a certain amount of psychoanalytic speculation; and one's tendency to hypothesize along Freudian lines is encouraged by his frequent use of the tropes of self-portraiture. He tends to depict himself in alien garb, as if to indicate that lie is an artist that fits uncomfortably into his surroundings, Brolly has ruefully observed that "people have always either hated or loved my work, with a lot of the turners in the first category." Whatever reactions this may bring out in an artist, it is undeniable that Brolly has not spared himself from the barbs of his satirical bent. In one of his most hilarious sculptures, The Artist as a Very, Very Young Man (1997) is pictured as an egg swarming with spermatozoa; the "winning sperm" has wiggled his way inside the lidded egg vessel.

One wonders whether this brilliant little piece of self-mockery, like the aggressive weirdness of many of Brolly's other works, stems from his early frustrations as a professional turner. In the early 1980s, as many turners were enjoying a first rush of public exposure, Brolly was not included in some of the early key surveys in the field (including a seminal exhibition held at the American Craft Museum). The experience did not prompt Brolly to make his work any more accommodating to the prevailing taste, however; thinking that he was "ahead of the curve," he instead pursued an even more uninhibited and expressive artistic vocabulary. Looking back, one can perhaps he glad that he enjoyed little in the way of early success. To this day, even as his work has received widespread acclaim for its inventiveness and technical accomplishment, Brolly impresses most when he is most driven by the petulant need to vault over the boundaries of decorum.

Ultimately it is this determined irascibility, rather than any particular sculptural or technical innovation, that makes Brolly a provocative figure in contemporary wood turning. As much as the field has enjoyed success over the past twenty years (especially of late), it has remained a fairly quiet and unassuming sub-discipline of the studio craft movement. Frankly, it is a field that needs some shaking up. Brolly's self-appointed role as an enfant terrible places him in an interesting position vis-à-vis his peers: not as a leader, perhaps -- his vision is too idiosyncratic for that -- but certainly as a catalyst for change.


About the author

Glenn Adamson is curator at the Chipstone Foundation in Milwaukee, where he prepares decorative arts exhibitions for the Milwaukee Art Museum. Adamson is co-curator of the currently touring exhibition Wood Turning in North America Since 1930, organized cooperatively by the Yale University Art Gallery and the Wood Turning Center in Philadelphia.

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