Casey McCafferty’s carved wooden pieces are inspired by mythology and the sculpture and paintings of more ancient civilisations. “I’m using my own primal urges, too. I don’t like to plan,” says the artist, who works in wood and stone in his New Jersey studio, creating furniture and sculptures identifiable by their freestyle sensibility, totemic presence, lumps, bumps and facial features. Thrusting hands, popping eyes and jutting noses are all here: humorous but human. “My interest in body parts comes from ancient art, from Greek to Oceanic, and the way it implies a collectivity among people.”


McCafferty’s latest body of work is called Head Hand Foot – a series of works whose very title evokes the surreal anthropomorphism that infuses his practice. It marks the artist’s global representation by Gallery FUMI.


Among the new pieces are a side table in oiled walnut from which a totem emerges, and another with a highly figurative foot. A coffee table in ash has been oxidised to create a greyish weathered finish. “I like using natural applications that work with the tanins in the wood and create a new colour,” says McCafferty. A seat with two sculptural totems is in red cedar, a piece of timber that has been in the studio for a long time, waiting for McCafferty’s hand to fall upon it. “It is,” he says, “the most beautiful red.”


McCafferty comes from a family of stone masons, but fell in love with wood and its unique sculptural possibilities early on. “I would call myself self-taught,” he says,“though as I was developing my skills, I always stumbled onto an older, wiser person who could show me the way.” Now McCafferty is the absolute expert of his own style, using a range of chisels and mallets – mostly highly customised with curly maple handles he makes on a lathe – to draw onto, into and around the wood; to gouge it and shape it and chisel away at it, all to create his soft and alluring biomorphic elaborations.

“One of my favourite tools is a 70-year-old draw knife I found in a Californian flea market,”he says. “It has a really long blade and you hold it in both hands, drawing the knife towards your body, to take off shavings, to round things off.” His work, then, is an extension of his physical self. Improvised and spontaneous, even McCafferty doesn’t know where a piece will end up.  


As part of Head Hand Foot, McCafferty has made a series of cabinets for the first time since he walked away from his role as a provider of high-end furniture for architectural interiors. “The cabinets I am creating now are a 360-degree canvas, with figurative features on all sides, and even in the interior,” he explains. “I am carving every facet.” Like a sculpture, they are made to be seen front, back and side.


And then there are mirror frames. Sensual and shapely, they recall a Picasso guitar, or Man Ray’s Violin d’Ingres. Here the artist sometimes allows the outline form to speak for itself, while other frames are alive with carving: bulges, handles and details that teeter on the brink of figurative and abstract.


Nature, though, is never far away. McCafferty plays his materials, transforming wood into softly rounded pebbles for his suspended Hag Stones sculpture. A string of clustered forms, the natural colours of the wood – ash, red elm, butternut, walnut, white oak, grey –  co-mingle like stones on a beach. Slender Cairn totems, carved from cedar, and looking as soft as soap, or limestone eroded by water, reach over two metres high.  


McCafferty has certainly marked out his own artistic territory, though he would acknowledge the influence of predecessors of the American Studio Craft movement, including JB Blunk and Wendell Castle. His pieces have found a place beside theirs in collectors’ homes and museum collections, while in an impressive London home, eight works, including totemic lights that flank the entrance, sit near those by Picasso and Twombly. “I am in awe of those artists,” admits McCafferty. “But I see myself as a crafts person who gets to do whatever he wants.”

Words by Caroline Roux

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