Northview Gallery

The brain of the beholder

David Eckard's sculptures at North View Gallery leave room for many interpretations

I saw David Eckard’s exhibit, Placards and Placeholders, at the North View Gallery on PCC’s Sylvania Campus just before and after a scheduled artist Q & A with sizable crowd of PCC students and faculty. For nearly an hour, Eckard took questions from the audience about the meaning of the title, his use of materials in his craft, and his biography as a midwestern farm boy and art teacher. Oddly, the art seemed to be the proverbial elephant in the room; no one wanted to ask how to read or understand it.

Front and center in the large, square space of the galley is the floor piece, Cornucopia (theatrics of worth). Facing slightly askew from the gallery entrance, yet readily visible, the piece first presents what appears to be a round, brown, open anus. Even as I write this description, my mind’s ear anticipates the same responses toward the piece as to my description: cue the uncomfortable twittering, perhaps even umbrage.

David Eckard, Cornucopia (theatrics of worth). (2020) painted wood, turned wood, steel, mirror, fabric, wool, leather, sand.
Image courtesy of the artist.

However, to imagine the discomfort some viewers might experience gives this writer a little thrill — not only viewing Cornucopia — as I remind myself that acting as an art critic, this delight I feel is itself a fulfillment of a particular desire. Such is the personal implication that comes with my proximity to the object. 

Your experience may vary.

Whether we are conscious of it or not, as we look at a piece of art, the piece has in a sense fixed its gaze on us as well, It’s a phenomenon as old as the paintings of religious icons and then the burning of those images during the Reformation. (And likely before that.)  We make associations with the works of art via recognition of and relations with representations of elements already in the world. In Eckard’s art, references to anatomy are the first thing we lock onto, and what follows is either an implication or indictment nevertheless internalized.

Now, put fifty people in the gallery and the gaze gets more complicated. Not only do we have the work to contend with, we are also aware of the group’s potential to gauge our relationship with the art. My speculation that the subject of sex never arose during the conversation is because a private conversation with the art is displaced.

David Eckard, Pedagog (my mastadons). (2017) Painted wood, steel. Image courtesy of the artist.

This is not to say that some viewers may see this orifice as an iris or aperture. After all, one can see other parts of the sculpture through the opening. Additionally, its presence is not necessarily an indication of practice but is, as an art object/image, a bit fantastical, neither good nor bad, a fulfillment or denial. Indeed, my own immediate response shortchanges the complex generosity that resides in Eckard’s paintings and sculpture.

For instance, the shift to iris or aperture allows us to think about sight, and with that, new associations open up for his other sculptures. Several of his works include small mirrors. Placed in a manner that prevents us from readily seeing our reflection, we are afforded less implication than in the former reading. We are somewhat freed of the harsh gaze. Furthermore, this expanded reading may seem a bit contrived, it is supported by the amount of repeated motifs and elements of fabrication in Eckard’s sculpture that in turn allow the viewer see the group as a whole.

As the title of the exhibit suggests, there are placards — a good number of them — in several pieces: Pedagog (my mastodons), Origin (scholar plank), Emblem (revisionist model), New Regime (jewels of paste), Dowser’s Faith, and Fossil Whispers Revolution) all incorporate tablets that have illustrations that look as if they could be illustrations an ancient encyclopedia of objects and fauna that have been long lost to the world. Yet, they are nevertheless suggestive. We almost recognize the representations, as distant memories from our limbic brains.

Other parts of his sculpture are similarly primal. Painted mostly in earth tones, we are reminded of rocks and dirt as much as we are of muscles, tendons and adipose tissue. These might very well be placeholders of a sort, stand-ins for our bodies and our place in nature. 

David Eckard, Origin (scholar prank) (2017). painted wood, steel, rope. Image courtesy of the artist.

Yet we must add another element to round out the examination of these sculptures. Origin (scholar prank) has the only placards that are not directly attached to the rest of the sculpture, plus they are the only ones that look like little handheld chalkboards. Attached to the primary structure is an armature with a ring at the end, and inserted into that ring is what might best be described as a prosthetic device, at the end of which is a large, pointed piece of chalk. The shape of the device wonderfully echoes the painted form from which it hangs, and while it apparently has been used to make initial marks on the placards underneath, retrieving it from its holder to finish the drawings would clearly be an impossible task without a ladder.

Dowser’s Faith tells a similar story: an intricate contraption is affixed to an organic form, from which hang six placards, one of which is blank. Mounted at the extreme end of an armature on the piece is a candle that at some point has been lit. Light it and finish the story?

I must remark on the craft of Eckard’s work. His fabrication of metal, leather and other materials is deft. His painted surfaces are refined with an almost classical blending of color and tone. The metalwork often adds a linear counterpoint to the more amorphous painted shapes yet also imply a utility, as do the various hitches, straps, pegs and blades. Within all of his work, he walks a fine line between abstraction and figuration, which allows the viewer a wide interpretative path. 

David Eckard. I Said Rock (homo faber) (2017). painted wood, steel, canvas, mirror, cord. Image courtesy of the artist.

Eckard’s I Said Rock (homo faber) may offer a bit of commentary on his craft. We can clearly see the rocks. They are at the top of the piece like a formation we might see in the mountains, and below there is a pile as we might see as a barrier for a campfire. Curiously, the rocks above and the wood for the fire are the same color, which is enough of a visual distraction to make their abrupt lower edge of the rocks above, along with what looks like underpainting for more of them, make an odd sense. And  how can there be a shadow cast behind the campfire when the yellow lightsource is behind the shadow? Perhaps the artist as the titular “homo faber” (faber is Latin for “maker” or “artisan”) has another agenda. As it certainly is for abstract artists, the viewer’s process is to follow where the art leads.

If the yellow paint does not represent the light source, what causes the shadow? Something stronger and brighter within the gallery itself? Perhaps this is a sly nod to the gallery lights above, or something equally meta as “highlighting”  the dynamic of viewership. More likely it reminds us that it is the artist himself that illuminates. 

Or, it’s just me overthinking in order to thwart a fixation on what may seem like the readily apparent sexual and sensual aspects of a lot of the work, because I know this does not do full justice to Eckard’s art. No, there is something more elusive at work here, and not only in I Said Rock (homo faber). Eckard has let us into his world, yet despite his intimate generosity that pulls us in, the work retains a mystery, thereby putting us in an odd space within ourselves. (Dare I say that he queers the space?) It feels like those emotions one feels yet can’t quite name, the types that eventually leak through as a facial tic.

And I would have it no other way.

Placards and Placeholders is on view at the North View Gallery at PCC Sylvania through February 15, 2020. The gallery is open Monday through Friday from 8 A.M. to 4 P.M. and Saturday from 11 A.M. to 4 P.M.

The person that could have been

Kerry Skarbakka's "White Noise" at PCC Sylvania imagines an alternate reality filled with toxic masculinity


Titled White Noise, Kerry Skarbakka’s first exhibition in Portland—at Northview Gallery, PCC Sylvania—unfolded a disturbing fantasy: in twenty-five powerful photographic and video works, a grisly-bearded white man prepares for an Armageddon of his own devising. We see him vigorously proclaiming his Bible verses, working out at a punching bag, shaving his face and his head. Ammunition piles up. Jesus appears on a billboard, offering him encouragement and reassurance. The righteous avenger scrawls a final note to the daughter he likely has not seen in years. Whatever mass violence he will inflict is left for us to imagine.

Kerry Skarbakka (American, born 1970), Self-Flagellation(triptych), 2017. Archival pigment prints. Each 60 x 40 inches.

The would-be shooter is portrayed in these works by the artist himself. It is a bold move for Skarbakka, an assistant professor of photography at Oregon State University in Corvallis, who had to inhabit the role of a mad man continually for the several years it took him to realize this project. He is the tattooed antagonist who stands naked at the entrance to his garage in Castle Doctrine (aka Stand Your Ground Law) from 2016, armed not with one but with two big pistols, determined to defend his territory at all costs. He is the assailant in Neighborhood Watch, also from 2016, a series of twelve warning signs each imprinted with his bust-length image, out of focus and partly obscured by the gun he aims directly at the camera. Posted at various points around the perimeter of the gallery, the menacing signs positioned the viewer as target, making the gunman’s threat terrifying and personal. 

Kerry Skarbakka (American, born 1970), Neighborhood Watch, 2016. Twelve adjustable signs consisting of high-intensity prismatic film, galvanized posts, concrete, buckets. Dimensions variable.

Hanging overhead at the center of the exhibition, which closed in December, was American Muscle (2018), a huge photograph on stretched vinyl, almost eighteen feet long, of a vehicle undercarriage. Framed all around by sky, the car seen from below appeared, without a hoist, to hover in the air. The work bore the subtitle 2010 Dodge Challenger. A wall label provided a chilling explanation: the vehicle is the identical make and model that a white supremacist plowed into a crowd of counter-protesters at a neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017, injuring nineteen people and killing one. Skarbakka here has us envision what that one fatality, Heather Heyer, might have seen the moment of her death. 

car undercarriage
Kerry Skarbakka (American, born 1970), American Muscle: 2010 Dodge Challenger, 2018. Stretched vinyl banner. 108 x 214 inches.

In such works, the artist probes a kind of murderous, masculinist rage whose societal effects are all too familiar from the news. It defines an insecure racial and class demographic that fulminates against minorities, feminists, the left, and/or the government, and pines for an ideal past when men were men, women knew their place, and Blacks accepted their servitude. Recently in the New York Review of Books, historian Adam Hochschild described this imaginary era as the Great Yesterday, a common myth embraced by disaffected groups vulnerable to malevolent demagoguery. Skarbakka evokes it in his exhibition with Antebellum Wallpaper (2017), sheathing a gallery partition in a reproduction of vintage wall-covering printed with a picturesque scene: a white manor house near a river with passing steamboat, white picket fence, and horse-drawn buggy carrying a white couple and their Black footman.

An entire ideology is encoded in this quaint Dixieland tableau, an example of the “white noise” to which Skarbakka alluded in the exhibition’s title. White noise in the usual sense is pervasive and ongoing, environmental, and fades from conscious awareness, like the unexamined assumptions that inform a person’s background and shape his behavior in the world. Beyond merely showing and condemning a social type in this exhibition, Skarbakka wondered how his Bible-beating alter ego came by his angry estrangement, what kind of “white noise” gave rise to his expectations, his sense of entitlement, and ultimately his disappointment and destructive fury. 

On the antebellum wallpaper, the artist arranged framed photos from what might have been his character’s youth: snapshots of a towheaded boy with brother and mom in a modest family living room, in the backyard with his dogs, in the kitchen displaying the prized bass he’s just caught on a fishing trip with dad. Later, his teen missionary identification card reveals his evangelical indoctrination. A U.S. flag flies on the porch. Then things fall apart: a sheriff’s sale sign is taped on the door of a foreclosed house, empty interiors show busted sheet rock and leaking ceilings. The boy becomes a man, leaves home, joins the army. The handsome blue-eyed recruit is photographed in camouflage fatigues with the stars and stripes draped behind him. 

Many of these images, it turns out, derive from the artist’s own family album. What makes Skarbakka’s project truly profound is his personal implication in the narrative of toxic American masculinity he constructs in White Noise. Skarbakka grew up in Tennessee in an Evangelical Christian household and later served in the military. Significantly, he began work on this exhibition after the birth of his own child, troubled by the potential transmission of a certain type of male-identified behavior from fathers to sons.

Skarbakka man in fishing boat
Kerry Skarbakka (American, born 1970), Pedigree, 2016. Archival pigment print. 30 x 20 inches.

He pondered the problem of inheritance in his exhibition, grouping together on one wall three photos of three generations: the image of the artist himself as his pistol-wielding persona in the aforementioned Castle Doctrine, flanked by photographs (both 2016) of his son and father respectively. In the latter, titled Pedigree, a fisherman sits alone at the rear of a boat, his back turned, arms hanging loosely, cigarette in hand—an image of utter detachment if not dejection. Here is a father aloof and unavailable. Vaccines depicts a wailing baby pinned in place by mother’s hands as he receives his shots from a pediatrician or nurse. What lies ahead for this infant, we want to know? Must boys inherit the ways of their fathers, or can they be inoculated somehow against a kind of virulent manliness that may result in alienation and even erupt in violence?   

Such questions issue from Skarbakka’s actual point of view, that is, from outside his racist, pugilist persona as he contemplates his own individual development. An artist, teacher, and family man, he worried in White Noise how, given his upbringing and experience, he could instead have become the noxious soul he portrays. Was it nature or some aspect of nurture that allowed him, once inculcated into an oppressive belief system, to escape it? Are there qualities of character that allow one to transcend one’s circumstances? In conversation with a fellow photographer in the catalogue to his exhibition, Skarbakka discusses the dangerous potential of his received doctrinaire influences and white male privilege, noting, “I’m also proof that you can change.”

Kerry Skarbakka (American, born 1970), All In (detail), 2019. Video. 15 minutes.

It is tantalizing to speculate how his creative role-play may have functioned in this (ongoing?) transformative process. In the hands of another artist, the angry white man may have emerged as a mere cliché. For Skarbakka, though, everything is at stake as he simultaneously displays and disavows his potential exhibitionist swagger and lethal aggression, projecting it onto a fictional other. Getting into character in this brave and brilliant project—toying with guns, growing his beard wild, shaving it off, ritualizing rage and regret—may also have been a way for him to exorcise his own nagging demons.

Sue Taylor received her BA in art history from Roosevelt University and her MA and PhD from the University of Chicago. Formerly critic for the Chicago Sun-Times, curator of prints and drawings at the Milwaukee Art Museum, and adjunct professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and Northwestern University, she is a longtime corresponding editor from Portland for Art in America and professor emerita of art history at Portland State University. Her many publications include Hans Bellmer: The Anatomy of Anxiety (MIT) and the forthcoming Grant Wood’s Secrets (University of Delaware Press).