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.

One Response. Have your say.

  1. Jim Pallas says:

    Excellent review of some very original artwork. Congratulations to both.

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