Bruce Conkle: The Chill of Recognition
After collaborating together in the Play show at Portland State University, Bruce Conkle and curator/co-conspirator Jeff Jahn discuss art, death, life, the environment and Bruce's career. A career which has taken him from Oregon to New York, Iceland then back again...
J: Bruce, everything you do gives me the chill of recognition. Although your snowmen, fake pelts and beautiful digital winter land images stand on their own aesthetically they integrate the double edge sword of environmental awareness and hypocrisy. You flaunt it decadently and like Baudelaire's poetry you implicate yourself. Other environmental artists go all natural, you go artificial. Your work isn't utopian, it is right here right now.
B: Yeah definitely, I'm totally pointing the finger at myself in these works. We are the snowmen. I'm interested in artificial worlds, artificial environments. To take it one step further we are in an artificial environment right now (Bruce's living room) but if we take a step outside we are in an artificial environment then too. I really don't think there is any place on the globe where you could say it is an entirely natural environment anymore.
J: In the Play show they were all very artificial environments from the glazed looking video game stills to the very artificial life support of the freezer with a snowman and a Christmas tree in it.
B: In fact, the tree probably preferred the artificial environment to being outside in the 80's and 90's. It was a variety that can survive to -40° F and the freezer only went to -15° F. It was thriving in the artificial environment.
J: I liked the life support aspect of the work and I thought the Play show was very much about life, and what sustains life; physically and in terms of mental attitude. Apart from the trickster part of your work, both the video game stills and the freezer each were vibrant, but artificial sustaining zones. The true environmental constraints of a real natural system can be suspended in a video game. You used the game stills to highlight the mental tricks we play with ourselves.
B: It is someone's idealized version of an environment. A lot of people thought they were real photographs at first but as you get closer you realize something is amiss. Similarly the snowman looked familiar but when you got up close you saw those big dark sentient eyes.
J: Oh yeah, those huge inky dark eyes. They were like the eyes of a dying creature, stripped of everything but simultaneous survival and resignation. The snowman was slowly melting too. There was the horror of this freezer which was supposed to be there to support him but actually he was in a slow state of entropy. For a literary equivalent it was a bit like Kafka's hunger artist wasting away... the tree is the big cat that is in there with the hunger artist.
B: Just like ice cubes in your freezer will eventually dissolve and disappear. But also another element in the freezer was a small stone, a very round, sorta egg shaped lava rock. It was there as the potential of violence; where the snowman could commit suicide by breaking the freezer's glass.
Becoming an Artist
J: How did the realization that you were an artist come about? Did you have this predilection for art making all along?
B: Early on I made visual things, particularly cartoons. Also, people don't make work that is apolitical. If an artist makes a piece that is just one color, then they are kind of saying the politics of the current day are sort of all right. Or maybe if it is red it could be interpreted as being angry with the status quo. I don't think you can really separate yourself. I try not to make my work preaching or finger pointing either though.
J: We are talking then about how you found your subject matter...
B: I follow the news and current events, world events, local events. Some of my earliest works followed logging and deforestation when all those debates were going on, 10, 15 years ago.... similar to the ones that are going on now. It is always a topic here. One piece I made was a first aid cart. And it had a piece of a branch that it carried. It was sawed, not broken at both ends and it had this weird vehicle with a big red cross on it. That was at the University of Oregon, and then I went to get my masters on the east coast.
J: How was that? Were you somewhat exotic on the east coast...? (laughs) at Rutgers?
B: Yeah, I mean I was never considered an East Coast artist. I didn't fit in there, not that I really fit in here either, but more so here than there. I wouldn't define it as narrowly as Portland, where I live.... but I think I've got a more of a west coast thing going... a la Paul McCarthy and Mike Kelly sort of thing.
J: That makes sense. I've often felt that artists necessarily needed difficult to characterize or challenging personalities that made others jump through their hoops. It is a bit like the way children test their parents, except it is the artist testing the culture while looking for approval. It is necessary because artists end up mediating their desires with what is before them.
B: Some of us get up on a soapbox and start pointing and yelling I guess.
J: So a certain lucidity has to creep into the personality forming process where you are not some reactionary ping pong ball of identity and aesthetics? You stop buying into what is provided as a template and you back off from the traditional consensuses. When did you decide to be an artist and forsake other paths?
B: From the time I was a kid I wanted to be a cartoonist and I was pretty good at that. Then my high school didn't really have an arts program so by college I was more into the sciences, I wasn't really sure where I was heading. Then in college (University of Oregon) I started gravitating back towards art, so typical. I took one or two art courses and some film/video courses with a lot of Marxist theory and history. I ended up getting my degree in film and video. There wasn't much production and it was mostly criticism at the U of O. After that it was the Museum School in Boston and my MFA at Rutgers. The east coast had really "open" visual arts programs. I ended up working in some of the major New York galleries, Castelli, Sperone, etc.
J: You mentioned your interest in science, I've found that most of the brilliant humanities people just don't try to integrate Science. If Clement Greenberg had taken just the tiniest amount of neuroscience into account he wouldn't have been able to go about formalism the way he did. The first true modernists did look at science and didn't necessarily see it as a savior, a Deus ex Machina. Tinguely made machines that destroyed themselves. In reverse, even Oppenheimer was into Robert Motherwell's work. I get the sense that familiarity with the scientific process and assumptions led you towards your subject matter somewhat.
B: We place so much value on medical practioners and researchers but they are often just scratching the surface.. especially physics and biology, they are simplified in the lab.
J: Most of your work is like a science experiment or a trophy that has failed in some way. Sort of where science and arrogance go square dancing.
B: Right, I'm pointing out the failure of some experts to assess part of the equation, something that has ecological consequences.
J: So do you see artists as a kind of multifaceted conscience for the culture?
B: I see myself in that role but I wouldn't say all artists should feel that way.
J: The snowman from the Play show seemed to package up a lot of your concerns all in one piece. It had this snowman, a classic case of anthropomorphism with these animal eyes looking out in terror. The snowman is reaching out towards this Christmas tree in an artificial environment that is keeping both tree and snowman from perishing... all within a gallery in a freezer that says ICE on the outside. It plays with the internal-external and I loved opening it once a week to replace the carrot nose. It showed not just the process in making the piece but also the process of a lifespan for this Frankenstein creation (which had real glacial ice and fake snow mixed). You showed how the tree was actually thriving in contrast to the snowman's slow death. Maybe trees will just out-evolve us in our own artificially changing environment? We are best adapted to exploiting an environment that is rapidly becoming the past. What happens when other creatures exploit the new weaknesses we create?
B: Yeah, I didn't set out to make that specific point but that metaphor existed in and around the freezer. Remember, the freezer is a trophy case or a display from a natural history museum where you can collect and display something that may no longer exist.
J: Also the conceit that you can somehow "preserve" the snowman like an animal in the zoo is preserved from extinction is there too.
B: After we have paved over their environment... (Laughs) It isn't the same.
J: People make objects for a reason, but there has been a trend for the last 30 years that has mistakenly tried to say "that's passé". Yet, very aware artists are still making things for walls. What is it about objects that artists can't get away from?
B: For me, I consider myself a conceptual artist and most of my ideas for art never get made. Objects are expensive to put together. In this case (Play) I had the idea for the freezer, snowman and tree. There was this aesthetic beauty, artists get trained to look at art the way we already view prehistoric art, and art of the Greeks and the Egyptians. They made beautiful aesthetic objects, irregardless of their meaning, a meaning which gets rediscovered through the curiosity that aesthetics bring.
J: So on some level aesthetic beauty isn't foreign to you as a conceptual artist?
B: Right, when I make the work it doesn't exist so much as conceptual anymore. I have made a lot of installation art that isn't necessarily sellable but it exists as an object.
J: Which do you prefer, the conceptual moment or the finished piece?... not that there is a right answer here.
B: I really like when the idea comes to me. Oftentimes they come as jokes, taking something and twisting it until it becomes absurd. The more I think about it becomes more real, and if I have the opportunity to make it then it becomes the object.
J: For a long time I've felt that taking things to their logical or illogical extreme was an important litmus test for art makers. Some artists will make an action figure or small tableaux but they don't make a giant skinned Mickey Mouse like you did in Iceland. How large was that thing?
B: It was about 30 feet long, and the 101 Dalmatian heads were all mounted on the wall. That totally started as a joke, then thinking about it the idea became a potential reality. After that it is just work, a lot of time and effort, financial concerns, storage, shipping, etc.
J: The whole physical aspect of creating work is another litmus test. You have to ask is this strong enough for me to want to store and ship and deal with the sheer physical inconvenience of making the work. Is this just a waste of resources or does this convey something?
B: It's all rationalization; it might be completely delusional. I've obviously rationalized to a point where I have made this work and hopefully someone gets something out of it.
J: It all gets back to the idea of Play, where Todd Johnson* suggested early on that you might be an ideal artist for the show. I saw your Art Gym show... taking something and perverting it until it won't go away. .. like an itch you got to keep scratching.
B: Then I want to put the viewer in the middle of it, not outside observing.
J: So you want to confront the viewer?
B: A good example was the Cabin Fever show at the Art Gym. I put two of those charred trees next to the doorway so the viewer had to enter between them, they didn't have to squeeze through but you definitely felt yourself entering through the trees.
J: That utilizes space awareness on an organism level that told the person, "you have just entered this zone, its unfamiliar, pay attention". It also says, "this isn't just an exhibit in a white space that will remain unchanging throughout eternity," which is what almost all museums pretend to be.
J: You have done a lot of video work; how do you feel about the medium since it often sets a discreet barrier between viewer and scene. In that way it is like bucolic landscape painting with a big gold frame.
B: Most of my monitors just broadcast live TV which fits in with my Marxist media theory background. A lot of video work is just so indulgent to assume that someone wants to sit there for 15, 20 or 30 or however many minutes just watching. In the gallery environment people often only have 15 minutes to look at the show and I think it is hard to impose that time element. It is also a social criticism on mass media... the amount of time and effort I would have to put forth to create a video ridiculing contemporary society and pop culture would be enormous, but they are broadcasting the real thing for free 24-7. So many people would come up saying, that video you had was so right on -showing the vapidness of TV culture by showing soap operas or whatever. It was simply what was on.
J: Serendipity, the truth hurts. Also your "televisions" are enhanced.
B: They are pieces in and of themselves not just some generic gallery TV.
J: Television sets are dated instantly. One can tell from the flatness of the screen, analog vs. digital controls and the styling. 100 years from now Bill Viola's cutting edge screens will look like the quaintness of Grant Wood's American gothic.
B: I have this theory about television watching. People have it on but aren't actually watching it. Instead it is a surrogate campfire that flickers in a way that we have evolved to respond to. For eons fire gave us security, warmth and was key to survival. So I made a video of a campfire for the Quasi-camp show.
J: Zoologists call what you described a biological releasing mechanism. The "flicker" keeps the wolf pack at bay and us safe. The TV plays upon those vestigial or root animal aesthetics. Gordon Orians at the University of Washington is one of the world's premier authorities on this. I think it is where your aesthetics and mine intersect. It is definitely the root of my work. Culture has evolved faster than the human animal in the last 200 years. So we are all fish out of water. The Play show was filled with fish out of water; videogame stills without interactive combatants, a snowman in a gallery, a faux skinned Sasquatch and sandcastles. We still have all these impulses that find expression whether appropriate or not.
B: Deep, misunderstood behaviors that are important.
J: When artists find their subject matter they are generally touching upon something that is omni-present.
B: We are not inventing things; we are focusing on things that are there.
J: So your Sasquatch skin rug is like a prayer mat but instead of reverence it is about worshiping irreverence.
B: I like to present the question that has more than one answer.
Le Mort des Artists?
J: Talking about death I think all serious artists feel the clock ticking. It is a stereotype that many artists consciously try to squeeze the most out of every minute, a cliché but it is often true. For some reason I think I'm going to meet my doom by slipping on a banana peel. For you maybe the animatronic Disney Lincoln is going to just knock on your door and proceed to unload a can of whup-ass on you?
B: Only if I don't get him first. I kind of see this smiling death like in movies where we know more than the character who is speeding towards harms way. I'm driving in an electric SUV, getting a
censored, going full speed... couldn't be happier, and the bridge is washed out. I hit it at 90 miles per hour. I just didn't see it coming...
* Picture of Todd Johnson
I would like to warn the gentle reader that this interview (if it really took place) may be full of inaccuracies, half-truths, and/or lies.
Bruce Conkle and bruceconkle.com take no responsibility for the content or views stated or implied herein.