Seager Gray Gallery, Mill Valley, presents Between Worlds, an exhibition of carved wood and assembled found materials by Bay Area artist, Joe Brubaker.
Joe Brubaker incorporates found and aged materials in his sculpture, lending their history and past life to the character of the works. He loves rust and faded paint, recognizable parts of broken toys and the stuff of old machines – gears, wooden wheels and strips of old tire rubber, all beautifully patinaed with age. It appears that time itself comes into harmony in his carved characters and masterfully modulated abstract works. The theme of this year’s exhibition, Brubaker’s seventh with the gallery, is “Between Worlds,” a reference to his love of moving between figuration and abstraction and also, in his own words between “the finite limits of the physical world and the infinite possibilities of the creative process.”
“I started out with figurative work, immersed in culture and the grit of everyday existence for ordinary people as in the “Everyday Saints” series,” says Brubaker. “In my “Somnambulist” series the figures began to morph and became more abstracted. I became concerned with our encounter with machines and how they are making the body disappear, changing the relationship we have with our own fragility. Finally, the abstract work, with minimal reference to the body, is my encounter with, without being too grandiose, the infinite. I think most abstract work leads that direction, as it creates a new language not dependent on literal references to our culture, biology and humanness.”
It is in his last two exhibitions that Brubaker began to experiment with abstract wall works, often incorporating wooden figures into the composition. In his “Dark Moon Series #1,” he has truly refined the process, adding evenly drilled holes in the surface that bring the eye in and out of the composition. This work is an homage to Louise Nevelson, but they are significantly different in that Nevelson used found materials and Brubaker works primarily in wood which he can alter himself. Carved pieces using curved and rounded edges entice the viewer through the entire composition, and the graphite finish gives a luminous elegance to the finished work. His other abstract compositions – “Oxidation Series 1 and 2” and “White Moon” - further his experiments using rust and white milk paint.
With the exception of “Isabelle,” “Serena” and “Roberto,” all of which have his signature milk paint and acrylic in various colors, Brubaker has restrained his palette in this grouping, giving them a close relationship to their original materials. One such material, bicycle inner tubes, is cut into strips. Rust, the faded gray of the rubber and the natural colors of the woods lend the works an earthy reference to their beginnings. From “Enrique,” a figure whose energy comes from balancing on a ball, to “Dimitrius,” standing tall with his pointed hat, the sculptures are each complete in their own way and beautiful in their natural tonality. Central to the exhibition are two works that Brubaker created in collaboration with fellow artists and friends – Holden Crane and Guy Mayenobe. Brubaker loves collaboration. “It is artistic cross-training,” he says. “I learn and expand from their skillset and point of view and they learn from mine.” In “Ajax,” Crane has created a roughhewn figure striding forward. Brubaker removed an arm and replaced it with the handle and wheel of an antique Chinese wheelbarrow, creating an uncanny balance. Our hero can advance, but only by pushing the weight of the wheel forward. The expression on the face of the figure that Brubaker carved, with the slight tilt of the head as if straining and the look of pure determination, add to the sense of epic strength and adaptation to adversity.
“Sisyphus,” Brubaker’s collaboration with Mayenobe, is equally epic, albeit a little more humorously so. A fan of artists like Jean Tinguely, whose sculptural machines satirized the world around him, Mayenobe created a mechanized kinetic tripod that Brubaker topped with a wooden fellow in striped pants -- a kind of cross between Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton – who kicks a ball along a ramp that rolls it back to him to be kicked again and again ad infinitum, replicating the human dilemma of never giving up despite efforts that might appear futile – the noble “everyman.”
Small bust works, like the proud and dark “Josie” and the metal-clad couple “Lionel” and “Gabriella,” give testament to the wide range of Brubaker’s skills and unerring instincts for creating works that both surprise us and seem completely themselves, resurrected as they are from the heaps of found materials and the endless store of imagination and curiosity that has kept him and his viewers engaged these many years.