Bruce Conkle at Nine Gallery: Gone but not forgotten

Conceptual artist Bruce Conkle offers a ray of imaginary sunshine to creatures who "do stupid shit"

I believe it is standard practice for online arts magazines to publish reviews of an event while it is still accessible to a potential audience. This is certainly the case for month-long fine art exhibitions, and a practice I have adhered to in the past. And although I thought Bruce Conkle’s exhibit, Alternate Sunsets at Portland’s Nine Gallery, was an exhibit I wanted to write about, it came and went before I had the chance. Yet, the exhibit followed me around for the next few weeks, asking me questions about things that were already bothering me, both personal and about art criticism. So, here I am, many weeks past a deadline.

Conkle lives in Portland yet has a national and international exhibition record. He has one of the coolest sleeve tattoos I have ever seen. It looks like wood grain, which may be seen as an extension, if you will, of Conkle’s long-standing theme of bringing attention to the environmental crisis that we have brought upon ourselves. (It is also indicative of his wit.)

There were two sculptures and 19 paintings of various sizes in this exhibit, all of which are a continuation of his concerns of our impact on this planet. The work operates at a visceral level (sometimes literally), and his artist’s statement reinforces this: “We are simple creatures. We worry about stupid shit. We do stupid shit. We do not know why we are here.”

"Love Luck Money Spells" is part of conceptual artist Bruce Conkle's show at Nine Gallery.
Bruce Conkle, “Love Luck Money Spells”, 2019, oil on wood, 24″ by 18″

Despite this apparent fatalism, he persists, and if his prodigious effort in the small Nine Gallery space is any indicator, it is a matter of urgency, if not the last vestige of hope. 

Conkle’s sculpture, Maybe In An Alternate Universe We Live Through This Shit (version II),  speaks to that little ray of sunshine by relying on fantasy. The fancifully decorated stump, the crystal ball, the dice made of sugar cubes, and the pink tea cup filled with Pepto Bismol are absurdist in content, and as such, they elicit a chuckle. However, the way the ball, dice and cup are displayed/arranged, suggests an action or ritual, and therefore a purpose. Magic is afoot! Or not quite, for Conkle knows that pink bismuth is not so much restorative as temporarily neutralizing. It provides the illusion of a cure.

The other sculpture, Master These And Control The World, acts as a sort of counterpoint. Instead of a tree trunk, it includes a more traditional pedestal/stanchion accompanied by a traffic cone (made of paper).Together they suggest an indictment of Western civilization.

As in Maybe In An Alternate Universe, Conkle has included dice made of sugar cubes. On the former, two dice both show three dots up (6), and on the latter, three dice show five dots up (15). Even though I am on my way to filling my Yahtzee score card, the dice will dissolve with the least bit of moisture, leaving no evidence of the fortuitous throws. 

Bruce Conkle, Maybe In An Alternate Universe We Live Through This Shit, Crystal ball, wood, lead, sugar, carbon, ceramic, pepto bismol, paint
26 x 13 x 13”, 2019

These meanings I have gleaned are just guesses, constructed in part by my own history of associations. However, Conkle does guide me along the way, primarily through similarities in materials and content. His repetition of oddities nevertheless provides consistency—and an assurance that meaning and relevance can be found in what otherwise would in its singularity, remain enigmatic. No longer a contrivance, repetition becomes an indicator of intentionally constructed metaphors and a generous act of encouragement. 

In no way does this mean that Conkle’s artworks are instructive, at least not in the traditional sense. Although he uses the Big Dipper constellation in many of his paintings, why he includes it in a diagrammatic painting of a car muffler (Sail On The Steel Breeze) or alongside an image of an ice vending machine (Conversion) may elude us. It is almost as if alchemical systems are at work in this art. 

Yet, isn’t the Big Dipper the easiest constellation to get a fix on in the night sky? So, what is equally apparent about car exhaust systems? The exhaust! The ice machine (a trope for Conkle, as he has utilized similar freezers in the past) in the painting, Conversion, has a small alpine village sitting atop the machine. Cute, right? So, what is one to make of the fiery-red cellular structures that mimic the Big Dipper floating alongside the machine? Imagine the amount of energy—all the heat—that machine throws off to keep the bags of ice frozen. Time and again, Conkle lays out his thesis, and does so with cosmic and biospheric signifiers. What may initially appear as an oblique or absurdist juxtaposition works to amplify his advocacy.

In a series of paintings of altered cigarette ads, Conkle does take a more direct approach to worldly ills. The smoke from a lit tobacco pipe (Pipes Honour) takes the form of a gray, dead tree. Smokers themselves are portrayed as skeletal and decimated. Direct and dire, I identify myself as just such a pariah, yet these paintings do not have the same lingering allure of other works. They do become emblematic of a larger issue, and that is how we go about our days without directly addressing an impending demise that will come by our own hands.

Bruce Conkle, Pipes Honour, Oil on wood
22 x 16”, 2019

Our vices are many, and we overlook a lot to get what we want/need. His painting, Primal Foundations, shows us a cut down, blue-hued tree, along with a severed large vine. Both have exposed vibrant circulatory systems with colors similar to what one might find on a psychedelic black light poster. I assume the coloration is meant to suggest a heightened awareness of the reality in which we live, and that, indeed, all living things have an autonomous and dynamic lifeblood. 

This portrayal leads me down a path that may not be the takeaway that Conkle is looking for. I wonder if there is not a sentimental appeal to these and similar bright-shiny aspects of his art. But not only Conkle’s art; art in general. Are we drawn to such feel-good distractions, whenever we are looking at, or, in my case, thinking and writing about art? Is the inspiration we find in art more akin to the final act of the proverbial moth, with the flame more like nostalgia? 

It is here that I am tempted to leave this essay unfinished (at the same conceptual place that kept me thinking about Conkle’s work since the exhibit and then procrastinating over it) because more and more questions arise, and none of them promise any comfort with their answers. 

I am more than willing to get in my truck, stogie clinched between my teeth, and make the hour-and-a-half drive to see art exhibits in Portland. I’ve been doing it for 10 years, and the traffic is almost always heavy. Given that viewing art is a large part of being an artist, and that I am also on a mission to potentially bring light to a member of my community of artists (and even though I try to do errands while in town), am I forgiven my carbon emissions? Are the thousands of people on their individual missions making the same trek also forgiven? Do we excuse artists for shipping their work to and fro? And at the risk of pissing off powers-that-be, are the curators of international biennials or gallerists and attendees of art fairs in far-flung countries given the same latitude for their environmental footprint? How do we compartmentalize our environmental impact, especially in light of the fact that we are unlikely to stop participating in these activities? Surely, to allow for such trade-offs, we must convince ourselves that art, or for that matter, arts writing, are more than just a response to matters critical to our survival and can affect real change. Surely.

Bruce Conkle, The Flame Went Up Toward Heaven
Oil on wood, 22 x 16”, 2019

Or rather, surreally in the face of what might be a hopeless situation? I cannot think of anything more appropriate. 

Pepto Bismol is my constant companion.

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