Mobilia Gallery is pleased to present Flotilla, a new series of
open sculptural shapes, exploring the flow of water with the concept of the boat form.
Loeser’s installation will also include a full sized functional boat, suspended from the ceiling and illuminated, transforming the boat into a lightweight, translucent work of art.
Museum of Art and Design, New York, NY
Brooklyn Museum, New York, NY
Racine Art Museum, Racine, WI
Cooper-Hewitt Museum, New York, NY
Chazen Museum of Art, Madison, WI
Milwaukee Museum of Art, Milwaukee, WI
Mint Museum of Craft and Design, Charlotte, NC
Museum of Art - Rhode Island School of Design, Providence, RI
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA
Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, TX
Reeve Union Art Gallery, University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh
Renwick Gallery-Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC
Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, CT
Flotilla: The Art of Displacement
When grappling with Tom Loeser’s Flotilla, a series of seven sculptures made using traditional
boat building techniques, it seems appropriate to first consider the boat as metaphor. Jim
Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (2000) chronicles the relationship between
members of two dying breeds of ‘honorable men’ living somewhat mythical lives played against
a backdrop of gritty hip hop urbanism. In perhaps the film’s most memorable scene, the
protagonist’s best friend, a French-speaking ice cream vendor named Raymond, drags him to a
nearby rooftop to see something that he can’t believe. The two peer over the parapet and see,
on the neighboring rooftop, an unfinished wooden boat with a man laboring over it. The scene
is quiet and the camera lingers allowing the viewer to take in the sight of this urban Noah and
his modest ark. After a moment, both characters mutter in their native tongues, “It’s amazing”.
In closing, Ghost Dog wonders how the man will get it down from there.
Let me give another couple examples of the mystique of the boat. Among my parents’ tales
of growing up in Detroit, there is one that features a neighbor spontaneously digging a large
earthen ramp and punching a sizable hole in the basement wall in order to drag a wooden
boat from the depths below. Notable boats figured in my own past as well. Upon high school
graduation, a friend enrolled in boat building school. After completing his training he rented a
warehouse on the fairgrounds in very inland and quite dry Paso Robles, California, and during
the following year he constructed a wooden sailboat and then set sail. I never saw or heard of
While berthed in their maker’s suburban basements or moored to their sheltering rooftops
during construction, these boats function as displacement devices from daily life. Ultimately, in
their use they offer freedom from the confines of our more mundane built environments.
The genesis of Flotilla was another boat built in an improbable locale. During the spring
semester of 2005, Tom Loeser arranged for the University of Wisconsin Wood Program to host
a traditional boatbuilder, Josh Swan, as a resident artist. The Wood Program is housed on the
7th floor of the Humanities Building, a Brutalist construction renowned on campus for its
impenetrable design. At the end of his residency, Swan’s 13.5 foot rowboat known as a ‘Maine
Peapod’ had to be navigated through a series of labyrinthine halls and travel through two freight
elevators (into which it fit by fractions of an inch) and a basement passage, to be born unto the
world and subsequently freed on Lake Mendota.
Swan’s boat had anchored itself in Loeser’s psyche, and in the summer of 2006, he began his
own boatbuilding enterprise alongside two of his graduate students, Matthias Pliessnig and
Benjamin Wooten. Each of the three constructed a Whitehall 12 rowing skiff, incorporating a
building system developed by boat-builder Platt Montfort of Maine. Montfort calls his system
Geodesic Aerolite construction. It involves building a lightweight frame of steam-bent oak
ribs that cross the boat and fir stringers that run the length of the boat. The wood frame is
then triangulated and stiffened with Kevlar thread, and finally skinned with heat shrink aircraft
Dacron. The system creates a hybrid of a traditional and high-tech boat that is semitransparent
During the process of crafting this boat and another during a Summer 2007 workshop at
Haystack Mountain School of Crafts, Loeser gained valuable insight into the logic of boat
construction. Integral to Flotilla, is the idea of the station. In boat making one first constructs
a series of stations, wooden forms that define key cross sections of the boat. The stations are
arranged in space and the rib and stringer frame is formed upside down on top of the stations.
This system easily develops complex compound forms where the surface is constantly changing
and always curved in more than one direction.
Flotilla offers 7 results of Loeser’s experimentation with the arrangement of stations in space.
In each, the keel runs the length, along the ‘bottom’ of the boat. The stringers echo the keel, while the ribs cross the form at intervals, creating the ‘interior’ volume and the imagined
‘displacement’ when the boat hits the ‘water’. In this visual hierarchy, the keel is the organizing
principle. The modulation of the stations changes the path of the keel through space and
profoundly affects the resultant form. Changing the organizing principle of the boat changes
its potential function and performance. Each sculpture is a proposition that poses spatial,
conceptual and technical questions: What is the function of the keel? Where is the bottom?
What does the hull of the boat displace?
The members of flotilla simultaneously appear to be idiosyncratic design proposals for boats,
evolutionary missteps, and the skeletons of boat shaped beings frozen in the act of locomotion.
In ‘Screw,’ which is created by placing the stations around a faceted central shaft, one can
imagine its pilot rotating disconcertingly within the interior vortex. ‘Eddy’, which was formed by
placing the stations on the outside face of a disc, brings to mind ‘the futility of a dog chasing its
tail’, as Loeser puts it. In this way, the forms evoke biological and technological evolution and
devolution. They also play an interesting trick confusing what is inside and what is out. A boat’s
hull is intended to displace water, but these permeable wireframe forms sidestep assumed
function and suggest a cognitive “displacement” to fantastic environments where these boats
This wireframe quality indexes the representation of forms in Computer Aided Design (CAD)
software. In fact, traditional boat building techniques have analogues in modern 3D modeling
software. New concepts, such as algorithmic architecture, use CAD software to create complex
geometries through scripting. A script is a series of commands that creates unpredictable
geometries, using random lengths, point clouds, or other variables. The approach employs the
computers power as a sort of ‘brute force’ to create complex forms.
Loeser has created his own brand of algorithmic architecture. His ‘script’ consists of constants:
keels, ribs, and stringers; and variables: the stations’ relative locations in space. Yet, instead
of bringing brute force to the table he brings the sensitivity of a craftsman who is tuned to
the impact of subtle variations within the system. This sensitivity is most apparent in ‘Right’,
where Loeser inflects the path of the stations ever so slightly in order to create a boat form that
suggests the flow of water around an unseen obstacle.
Loeser has suspended Flotilla in uncharted waters between the time-honored techniques of
old and the computational power of the present. The members of Flotilla, like the wireframe
diagrams created in most CAD programs, are not only akin to three-dimensional sketches
of potential products, but also akin to ghosts. This ghostlike quality comes both from their
transparency and from the feeling that they are not quite whole. Like the wooden boats they
refer to, they have a presence and materiality that seems familiar, yet they point to a world that
is not our own.
Assistant Professor of Furniture
San Diego State University