Whilst training in carpentry Ernst Gamperl turned to the lathe rather by chance, and embarked on his lifelong love affair with wood. Starting out an autodidact with no previous knowledge of the art, Gamperl was unhampered by convention in his approach to turnery.
From the outset he devoted his energies to the same artistic issues he was to toil at ever after. Even today he carves similar shapes time and again, improvising ever-new details, and time and again he juxtaposes structures and profiles to create a whole that is completely novel, hitherto unknown. Though Gamperl used to be ever on the lookout for precious, exotic woods, he has since come to prefer European wood like maple, beech, Italian olive tree and principally oak. During his first few years at the lathe he would turn “rough forms” out of freshly-cut wood that took a long time to dry before they could be treated, but now he exclusively uses wet wood. Gamperl’s early works display precision craftsmanship and clearcut design; his more recent receptacles employ minimalistic, archaic forms and surfaces to bring out the beauty of the wood with compelling effect.
Ernst Gamperl’s sculptures aren’t just turned on the lathe, they’re the fruit of years of painstaking toiling with his medium: wood. Over the past 20 years he has studied its drying properties and their impact on the sculpture. He knows it’s a give and take, a dialogue with the material, he can never force a shape upon it. Working out the implications of this insight is a challenge that always spurs him on.
Curved edges and bulges, projections and indentations emerge out of the natural deformation of the wood. They are part and parcel of the design, as are branches and irregular growth formations, and fissures and fractures that he consciously repairs and controls. The immanent expressive power of the material, the grain, lines and colouring, its softness or hardness, compact heaviness or paper-thin transparency is underscored by his treatment of the surfaces: waxing and polishing, scrubbing out the streaks or carving filigree parallel grooves, contrasting smooth and shiny with rough-hewn, scarred surfaces.
What makes the sculptor’s works what they are, however, is not only his virtuosity and material, but the forces that have been acting on the tree and its growth for centuries. Whether it is solitary or grove-growing, on fertile or hungry soil, exposed to wind and weather and outside influences – all these factors are engraved indelibly on the “memory of the grain” and give the receptacle its final form. Naturally enough, Gamperl is loathe to chop down a centuries-old tree, so he uses trunks that could not stand their ground against the wind or had to be felled for other reasons. On the bottom of each receptacle you’ll find the turner’s mark and work number, the year it was made and, quite importantly, the age of the tree.
To close with the words of architect Louis I. Khan, “Ask the wood what it would be.” Ernst Gamperl has the gift of turning wood into what it would be. And that’s fabulous.