By Anita Malhotra
Based in Portland, Oregon, conceptual artist and teacher Bruce Conkle has created a body of whimsical, thoughtful works that blend unconventional materials with ironic commentary on environmental and political issues. A recipient in 2011 of the Hallie Ford Fellowship in Visual Arts, he has exhibited in Portland, New York and Chicago as well as in Canada, Brazil, Iceland and Mongolia.
Bruce Conkle’s commissioned bronze sculptures, Burls will be Burls, can be seen in downtown Portland at Southwest 6th Avenue near the corner of West Burnside Street. His works are also on display at the Oranj Studio in Portland until March 15, at the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art in Eugene, Oregon until March 16, and at Rocksbox Fine Art in Portland from March 8 to April 27, 2014.
Anita Malhotra interviewed Bruce Conkle on December 7, 2013 at the Red Robe Tea House in Portland.
AM: Where did you grow up?
BC: Right here in Portland.
AM: You’ve said that as a child you wanted to be both a garbage man and a cartoonist. What did you mean by that?
BC: We didn’t have a lot of toys as kids but there was a big wild area behind where we lived, and a creek, and my brother Brian and I would go down there all the time with our shovels and build dams and play outside. I would find a lot of things left down there, and I guess I was interested in that. At the same time I was also drawing quite a lot and thought I’d want to be a cartoonist when I grew up. So I was torn between being a cartoonist or a garbage man, and most kids wanted to be cowboys, astronauts or whatnot. In some respects it seems like I’ve merged those two a little bit, looking at my work over the years.
AM: A lot of your work seems kind of humorous as well as ironic. Did you have that sense of humor as a child?
BC: I always had a slightly off sense of humor – a little bit dark, but funny as well.
AM: Tell me about your early art studies.
BC: As a kid I thought I’d be an artist, but then there were less and less art classes being offered, and so by the time I was in high school I was just taking science classes. When I went to college I continued with science, and then moved into film and video, and I learned a little bit too much about the film and video industry to know that I didn’t want to work in it. I was still was interested in the creative pursuits, so I switched back to fine art.
AM: Have your film and video studies informed your art at all?
BC: There is a lot of Marxist media critique from college that comes through, particularly in the earlier work. It helped form my views of consumer culture and advertising.
I did a show called Toys from the War Chest and it was a lot of invented toy military vehicles and most of them had televisions inside. It was the idea of colonizing through media as opposed to physically going there and conquering. From traveling – I’ve been to all sorts of places – I was way up in the hills in Thailand where the people don’t have electricity or running water, but they have a car battery, no car, that they would take it really far to town to charge it and then drag many miles home to power a small black-and-white television. The children would sit around the TV in their dirt-floor huts, and they’d be watching Western media non-stop.
AM: You’ve studied and worked in many different places. Can you give me a quick rundown?
BC: After high school I moved down to Eugene and got a bachelor’s degree in Film and Video at the University of Oregon. Shortly after that I went to the Museum School in Boston – for studio art classes. Then I moved back to Portland for a little while, and then lived in Arkansas for a bit, in the Ozarks. From this tiny Arkansas town of 105 people, I moved to New York City and I stayed for a couple of years. Then I came back to Portland, and after being out of school for four or five years, I decided to go back and get a master’s degree, so I moved back to NYC and went to Rutgers. I stayed in New York for several years and then I moved to Iceland for a while and then back to New York.
At that time I was working in different galleries and museums with a lot of what I thought of as the “happy old man” artists, like Roy Lichtenstein and Jasper Johns when I was at the Leo Castelli Gallery. But I wasn’t making much art and I was not happy, and I realized that if I stayed in New York and kept doing what I was doing I would never be happy, so I decided I had to get out of there. It took a few years to make it back here, but I’ve been really glad to be back. Portland has changed a lot since I left, so it’s not coming back to the same place exactly, but it has all these things that are familiar – things that I like – the nature and the geography, the trees and fresh air and all that.
AM: Are there any artists who are your inspiration or have been your inspiration over the years?
BC: Alexander Calder was one that influenced me a lot when I was a small kid. Growing up I didn’t go to art museums or galleries or anything, so art to me was the Mona Lisa or David – marble statues and bronze statues and old master paintings. So when I saw the mobiles and particularly a race car that Calder had painted I was blown away. I thought, “Wow, that can be art too? That’s something I could be interested in.” It altered the way that I perceived art and what could be art.
AM: Many of your works have an environmental theme, including your work in the 2002 exhibition Play. What was the concept behind Play?
BC: With Play, I obtained a large freezer with glass doors and had the idea to build a snowman inside the freezer. The thinking behind it was that with climate change, if the world heats up a few degrees, the snowman might not be able to exist in the outdoors any more so you’d have to build an artificial environment for him. And I got some of the snow from Mount Hood here. It was a trophy case – maybe I killed the last snowman, or captured it, but also if it warms up several degrees that’s how you would be able to keep one alive.
AM: How do you choose the materials you use in your work?
BC: The materials have to represent the ideas behind the work. With the eco-baroque work I do with Marne Lucas, we try to use natural materials when we can. And we’ve come up with this way of working and thinking in a way that is more natural and less manufactured. Baroque and rococo artists might work really hard to cut a crystal to make a beautiful form, someone can work on it for days or weeks or months, but it’s also becoming more and more artificial. In our eyes the untouched crystals that come directly from the earth can be much more beautiful. It’s a bit like taking a landscape painting and putting it out in nature. There’s no comparison, really.
AM: You and Marne did some work in Mongolia with rock formations. What did that involve?
BC: Marne and I took part in a land art biennial in the Gobi Desert – an environmental, political, land art project. It’s in a really beautiful area called Ikh Gazriin Chuluu, which means “land of great stones.” They happen to be mining gold, silver and copper in that region – and destroying the land to do it – with this huge influx of money and all the corruption and pollution that comes with that scale of operation.
So we found a rock formation that was delicately balancing. It has this great formal lesson on balance, and we applied gilding to it. So it’s speaking to the fragile balance of nature as it is, the value to the nomads that live off the land and the water there, with the value of those materials – the gold, silver and copper – when they’re in the ground. And when they become extracted you can materially see the gold, silver and copper, but it causes a lot of environmental degradation and then the nomads can’t live there anymore.
AM: Your 2012 exhibit Tree Clouds also uses natural materials. Tell me about that.
BC: A couple years back I was travelling in Ethiopia and there’s a lot of incense there. They use it for religious purposes, and also in their coffee ceremonies, and just burn a lot of it in general. In Addis Ababa they have the largest market in Africa, the Mercado. I went to the section where they were selling incense and asked some of the people, “What’s this one, and what’s that?” and generally they said, “I don’t know what that is.” And finally one person said, “We burn whatever we can find that smells good.”
It was frustrating at the time, but after I got home eventually it gave me the idea to collect resins from the different trees here in the Northwest and see what they smelled like when burned – to find out what the frankincense and myrrh of the Pacific Northwest are, so to speak. I applied for a grant from the Regional Arts & Culture Council here to do that – a two-part project – to travel around and collect aromatic resins from different trees, and also to make several different bronze incense burners and drawings for an exhibition.
AM: Do you use artificial materials in your work as well?
BC: Oh yeah, definitely. Sometimes I use aluminum foil, sometimes Styrofoam blocks, and things like epoxy resins. Real unhealthy stuff. In general, the idea shapes what form the artwork will take and I have to figure out what materials will work best to get the concept across and will also hold together.
For example, I use Pepto-Bismol a bit for the coloring and the smell, but mainly for the idea behind it. Pepto-Bismol is a medicine – at least in my mind – that we take for something that we’ve done to ourselves. You ate too much or drank too much, and you know what’s going to happen but you don’t worry about it. And then the next day it’s like, “Oh well, I feel like shit but I’ll have some Pepto-Bismol.” I see that as a metaphor for the corporate mentality of only focusing on profits. We know that cutting all the trees is bad, and polluting the water is bad, but we can’t be bothered with alternatives. The only concern is next quarter’s profits and we can just put a band-aid on the damage and keep on going.
AM: Do you think your interest in nature is a product of the fact that you spent so much of your childhood in nature, or is it because you live in the Pacific Northwest?
BC: Well, it’s a combination of both of those, but it’s also that I lived a long time on the East Coast. Seeing the way that nature is perceived there as opposed to here was quite influential. Nature here is the sublime beauty – the mountains, the trees, animals and wildlife.
In New York, nature is cockroaches, rats, mosquitos, West Nile virus and Lyme disease and weeds that grow in the sidewalk or come up through the subway grates. There exists this kind of weird duality that I have one view of nature and that I’m living in this other place where people are just totally afraid of it. So I tend to play one viewpoint off the other.
AM: What is the significance of the tree burl for you and why have you been working with that form?
BC: There’s a spruce burl forest up on the coast of Washington that Marne and I happened to wander into one day. One of those synchronicity moments. No idea why we pulled over there to that precise spot. When we got out of the car to look at the sunset we wandered right into this magical spruce burl forest. It looked like snowmen forms in the trees as well as all these other weird forms and figures just from the burls. So that’s one element of it. And the other one is with the eco-baroque – that these trees make these decorations. I like to think that they got tired of being around straight, boring trees. They wanted to lively up the environment and make something beautiful themselves, so they produce these burls as decorations.
AM: Tree burls are an important part of your commissioned public bronze sculptures, Burls will be Burls. How did these sculptures come about?
BC: It was a really long process. First the regional transit authority asked some area curators who they’d recommend to make sculpture for the new light rail line. My name came up, and I was asked to come up with a proposal for some sculptures but with no particular site in mind. I didn’t hear anything back for a really long time, but eventually they asked again, only this time they had a site in mind and wanted me to design some new pieces. They were taking out three benches and wanted me to make a series of sculptures to go on that block in lieu of the benches.
That was shortly after I had been in that burl forest and seen those tree-snowmen combinations, and I was working on some drawings based on that experience. To turn that into public art, I simply had to fold the arms on the figures so they aren’t sticking out as jagged pointy sticks in the middle of the sidewalk. So one figure has his arms folded; the other one’s got her hands up over her eyes like she’s craning to see something in the distance. And TriMet liked the design. I think they selected me for that area because it’s lined with trees.
AM: What are you working on now?
BC: I’m doing a series of drawings and possibly paintings that utilize some of the tree resin that I gathered for the Tree Clouds project. I’m just at the experimental phase now. I think I’ll be able to use it as a casting resin and also as a transparent layer like a varnish over paper or canvas or wood panels.
For more information about Bruce Conkle and his work, please visit bruceconkle.com.