Seeing Duke Christie’s work for the first time, I was struck immediately by its presence and deeply tactile nature. The level of artistry and sophisticated treatment of raw material sets him apart, turning responsibly sourced wood into richly expressive works of art. Inside the grain of this work is a creative trajectory towards growth, something which feels intimately connected to where we are as a species and what we need, not just to survive but to thrive. Christie’s work is driven in pursuit of excellence, towards finding new ways to see into the grain and connecting with the spirit of material in a holistic way. Beyond materiality, wood is a substance of life and a touchstone for our essential relationship with the natural world. In form, concept and scale Christie’s work has progressively expanded. His latest sculptural work is a revelation, giving an exciting taste of what this sculptor is capable of.
Powerfully intricate and ingeniously engineered, Switchback and Norse (scorched oak 225cm x 41cm x 41cm) is a magnificent example of Christie’s masterful skill and vision. Together these steadfast pillars appear miraculously as an imaginative gateway. Each pillar reveals different aspects of itself as you move around them in a process of metamorphosis. What appear from a distance as squared edges give way to a rhythm of reformation and eternal change. The way that serpentine curves evolve into finely barbed points echoes the dynamic flow of knotwork in Viking Art, seeking a new course. The trajectory of pattern and energy moves past the finite object, suggesting forces of a monumental scale drawn from the natural world. The switchback, zig zag path is determined by the oak and its internal properties, with the sculptor taking his lead from the grain. Scorching the wood is a physical process in the making, together with the concept of transformation through fire and the passage of time. The sculpture’s ancient lineage lies in reverence for the natural world and acknowledgement of our essential connection to an entire ecosystem, as we live and breathe. Switchback and Norse is a work that keeps growing in the mind, triggered by the immediately tactile presence of highly crafted wood. Christie often creates his own unique tools, bringing instinct, experience and innovation together with breath taking results.
His remarkable work is informed by over twenty-five years’ experience as a designer, maker and restorer, including reinstatement of lost woodwork in the royal apartments of Edinburgh Castle and work on the Walraversijde Museum project, West Flanders. This foundation of understanding and craft, together with the spirit invested in his chosen material, elevates Christie’s work. In recent years, his exceptional artistry has found new expression in sculpture, with unique pieces such as At Sea (scorched elm 152cm x 71cm x 88 (h) cm) forming a bridge between functionality, sensuality and concept. The form unfurls itself, with the natural fissure of wood like the neural pathway of a gastropod or the central vein of a leaf. The underside of blackened wood undulates in waves of fluid movement, curling into the tail of a seat unlike any other.
The natural environment surrounding Christie’s home and studio in Moray, Scotland, is a constant source of inspiration. Works such as Shell Form (ash 10cm x 34cm x 38cm), Torched limpet (ash 18cm x 50cm x 33cm) or White Limpet (ash 9cm x 28cm x 19cm) are beautiful examples of the way that pure form emerges from nature’s design. In Christie’s sculptural work there is always a desire to work with the internal bearings of material, bringing those qualities to light, rather than imposing human construction.
The way that Christie models form is a state of mind, linked to an entire trajectory of growth in nature. A hanging work like Coriolus (ash, 94cm x 74cm), positively radiates life and energy, taking the grain as the living nucleus of the piece. Inspired by the structure of polypore mushrooms, we can see and feel the hand of the sculptor, every incised mark, in unison with something greater than the individual. The play of light gives it a living, breathing quality whose meaning expands in free association. There’s a micro/ macro dynamic in play, with scale expanding from fungi to forms in the landscape and ripples in the universe. Dark Star (ash and burr elm, 38 x 38cm) feels like an eclipse of light and shadow in wood, a celestial body which is deeply mysterious and utterly timeless. Reclaimed wood is given new life in concert with these ideas, through the sculptor’s inimitable skill and the mind’s eye of the viewer. The inner flare of cosmic material that we too are glimmers in the dark grain of this work. Both the design and the instinct behind it are inspired. So much of contemporary life draws us away from the natural fabric of what we are, it is a joy to find contemporary art that celebrates and enables connectivity with the timeless affirmation and beauty of wood.