Seager Gray Gallery, Mill Valley, presents Origins, an exhibition of carved wood and assembled found materials by Bay Area artist, Joe Brubaker.
Joe Brubaker is fascinated with human beings - how they think, how they feel and how they move. He is interested in their physical characteristics as well as their stories, their strengths and their vulnerabilities. The earliest inspiration for his work began in his 20s when he visited El Museo de las Momias (The Museum of the Mummies) on a trip to Guanajuato in central Mexico. The preserved bodies of victims of an 1833 cholera epidemic are on display there and Brubaker was struck with their beauty and physicality, but also with their power to tap into more metaphysical contemplations about life and death. These and the many powerful wooden carvings of saints (santos) inspired the artist and led to his lifelong exploration of what it is to be human in his 30 years of creating figurative sculpture.
“Now what I realize is that all along there was an archetypal impulse there,” says the artist. “The work was teaching me. I started following consciously what was happening unconsciously.” The title of the show, Origins, refers both to the original archetypes that inspired them, but also to the inclusion of earlier works he has released from his own collection illuminating his process and the journey he has taken.
Erik, for instance is a sculpture Brubaker created around 1999. “He is definitely a shaman/magician,” says Joe smiling, “but he is a reluctant one.” Created in the artist’s earlier naturalistic folk art style with glass eyes, Erik is made of douglas fir and cedar. He stands gazing downward in striped pants and a sleeveless black shirt. Another work from this period is Carmen (2000). Her archetype is the lover with her red bathing suit and curvaceous shape. They are a shout out to one of his inspirations, Katsura Funakoshi whose figures, like Joe’s, are totems representing the bond between mind and body.
Gregory (priest, wise king) is created from an aged found piece of wood that Brubaker had been saving for a long time. It had so much character that he decided to leave it in its natural state. “Sometimes,” he said, “it is better to let the materials speak for themselves.” Gregory, along with Ophelia (priestess, magician), Terrance (wise king) and Joseph (saint, magician) are monolithic works that transition upward from raw material to refinement. Their frontal gaze and exaggerated height are reminiscent of early Egyptian and Roman sculpture created to deify emperors and kings.
Brubaker works in a style referred to as bricolage, creating work from any number of available found and used objects. “I am a 3D collagist,” he says. People bring him all kinds of found objects, car parts, old jewelry and pieces of burned out buildings. A great example of this method is Isabelle, whose skirt is metal found by his scavenger friends in a creek. Her bodice and hair, piled neatly on her beautifully carved head, are encrusted with small jewels and bric a brac.
In Brubaker’s last exhibition with the gallery, Between Worlds (2017), he began to integrate purely abstract works with the standing sculpture, some in homage to Louise Nevelson. He has included more of the same in this year’s show, most notably, Yin Yang, an amazing yellow cedar work that undulates in and out from the wall. “I see Yin Yang as ebb and flow, male and female,” he says. “It is an evocation of ripples, active ripples on the surface of a river.”
With his interest in people, it is not surprising that Brubaker loves to collaborate with his artist friends and the exhibition contains works with master wooden boat builder and sculptor Holden Crane, painter Teri Froelich, Marka Hansen (Brubaker’s wife) and artist Deepa Jayanth. Crane, Froelich and Jayanth are all a part of Brubaker’s Exquisite Gardeners Collaborative, which has created installations for the past decade in locations that include The Museum of Craft and Design in San Francisco, the Oceanside Museum, in Oceanside, California, the Jackson Hole Land Trust in Jackson Hole, Wyoming and several more beginning with their 2009 installation at what was then Donna Seager Gallery in San Rafael.
Deepa Jayanth, a native from India now living in Marin County, was presented with a large (68 inches tall) male wood torso in a dark graphite color she referred to as “Big Guy.” She created time-lapse videos a la William Kentridge of a woman interacting with the sculpture. Making drawings of the frames and then creating larger ones to match the scale of “Big Guy”, she collaged them onto the sculpture like a caress. “There’s nothing like it,” Brubaker remarked, “It is as though she is dancing around and entwining herself with the sculpture. It is a still-life animation.” The work is as poetic as its title, Sayujya, a Sanskrit work that refers to a merger with God.
What is remarkable about Joe Brubaker is his ability to remain continually curious and open, borrowing from and adapting whatever materials and inspirations come his way. He is creating something new at every turn. He can transition from the delicately articulated Caroline with her thin arms and refined features to the brutish Leopold – a Noh theater kind of character done in collaboration with Holden Crane, his expression and gestures fierce and exaggerated.
“I see them as actors, as having a life of their own,” Brubaker says. “Sometimes I have an intention when I begin, but they emerge and tell their own story.”