Review: Bruce Conkle’s MAGIC CHUNKS
As if cross-eyed, slightly out of focus. (“If there were an ice age right this minute, your eyes would stay that way forever. How would you like that?”) That’s the way I’d always seen work by Bruce Conkle and his partner in crime, Marne Lucas.
In spite of the best efforts of the artists, curators, critics, and artist/writer Ryan Pierce (who wrote the essay for the duo’s Sun King exhibition at Marylhurst Art Gym) to elucidate these artists’ “eco-baroque” aesthetic, I have had a hard time wrapping my brain around both the concept and their eccentric work.
Broadly, eco-baroque has been a rubric under which the artists have made work like the massive “chandelier” made of an inverted tanning bed studded with ferns, from which crystals and rocks of all sizes were hung, and gold framed self-portraiture as well as other symbolic elements and found objects from the natural world.
Conkle most recently showed a pink styrofoam “planet” rotating high above at galleryHOMELAND. It was rough-hewn, studded with an actual crystal, and had a moon orbiting on an aluminum wire. He has a sense of humor, does Mr. Conkle as well as an interesting and oddball vocabulary of materials, in past embracing aluminum foil as a key sculptural medium.
The burl, sliced cleanly from a tree, leafed with gold and hung as a relief on the wall of WorkSound for Conkle’s “Magic Chunks,” brought the whole body of work, the whole ethos into focus for me. Magic! The burl was not alone but in company of perhaps ten others leafed in gold, bronze, aluminum, all meticulously, which with the crazy striations and texture of the burl cannot have been easy. And the patinas achieved on a number of them give them a weight of agedness.
Here’s part of what’s so fascinating…there’s definitely something blingy about these chunks, something that comments on our need for the shiny shiny.
But at the same time a burl is a deformed growth on a tree caused by stress or damage. It’s a tumor, really, described with some of the language we use to describe cancer in humans…words like “malignant.” And the burl can be seen as a marker of, among other things, environmental damage caused by you and me. It’s also ironically coveted by craftsmen who prize it’s odd beauty. So to leaf it in a precious metal like gold is to point to the weird value we place on this tumor of which we are quite likely the cause. A dark circle.
At the same time, the burl is excess production on the part of the tree, excess, non-utilitarian production…which sounds a lot like…the excess, non-utilitarian production of our society…art. So there are several mobius strips of interest here.
But the way this speaks to the “eco-baroque,” the decadent, the natural, the sensual, the self-referential in the duo’s earlier work makes a lot of sense. The clearing of the fog is further reinforced by my belated connection drawn to Baroque and Rococo church interiors with their ridiculously ornate gold-leafed carvings. Not man v. nature, but man bending nature (wood) to his gloriously absurd whims.
In another room, Conkle has constructed an alpine horn of scraps of wood that is aimed toward the projected shadow of a mountain range. This horn, a recurring motif in Conkle’s work, can be taken as a sounding, perhaps of alarm, but also as referencing the artist’s Swiss heritage. And how apt, in the face of environmental degradation, to consider a country that has made an international policy of non-alignment, essentially staying out of it, retreating behind protective mountain ranges. Global warming, perversely represented here by not a shrinking but a growing snowman (who is very cute), says there will be nowhere left to hide. Not even the alps.
The grotesque, hinted at by the scarred stumps on some of the wood pieces where a limb might have been that seem very Joel Peter Witkin to me, is given full throttle in a hanging sculpture in the smallest of WorkSound’s galleries. A slimy, oozing, pale blob hangs from chains while a viscous pink liquid pours over it, running into channels, and recirculating through clear tubing. The smell…”What’s that smell?” a guy asks me. Oh my god, it’s Pepto Bismol. That’s some crazy life support for whatever this sick thing is. Whatever it is, as a friend used to say, “That ain’t natural.”