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Bruce Conkle

2010 Individual Artist Fellow, Oregon Arts Commission. 2010.

Photo: Conkle, Bruce. Friendlier Fires. 2008.

Originally published May, 2011

There are certainly many artists in Oregon for whom the natural world is both subject and inspiration. Craft culture is strong here with the clay of the land and fibers of the fauna crafted into sculptural works by many hands while painters and photographers have long documented the state’s varieties of landscape.

Upon first seeing work by Portland artist Bruce Conkle, one might not immediately group him with the artists who earnestly employ and/or address the natural in their work. And that’s because Conkle’s mischievous sense of humor and the absurd kicks his work into a hard left turn that would make his sculptures that might be made of tin foil, pink foam, bent wire, and/or a coconut with a little crystal growth on it stand out in any kind of eco-art exhibition. But there’s no mistaking that Conkle.

Sometimes it’s poetic, as with his silver-plated burls, great natural bulbous tree growths harvested by Conkle and wall-mounted in a trophy like manner as sculptural reliefs. (He ironically calls them “Philosopher’s Burls.”) Sometimes it’s grotesque, as with the slimy pink suspended blob that appears to be on Pepto-Bismal life support with an improvised pump-and-surgical-tubing apparatus that keeps it coated in goo. Sometimes it’s both funny and very sad: the recurring figure of the sweet snowman is terribly melancholy in the face of global warming. And sometimes it’s just elegantly weird as with the collaboration Conkle did with Marne Lucas, “Warlord Sun King,” that featured a hanging tanning bed as a chandelier with dangling chunks of various crystals and minerals.

Conkle’s Swiss ancestry recurs in cartoon form with the artist posing in lederhosen with various homemade alphorns that might be made of a patchwork of wood scraps or have the sounding end of the horn slathered with some kind of slimy-looking substance. So his interest in nature is, in spite of gilded burls, less romantic and more clear-eyed or warts-and-all after all (the above pink blob resembles some kind of almost fleshy growth we used to find on pine trees where I grew up). One can imagine that what we see as postcard picture perfect is, to the inhabitant, as practical and functional as a horn to communicate with far-flung neighbors…as romantic as a cell phone call. And the often improvised or provisional appearance of his sculptures to me relates to the make-do and can-do necessities of life for those who live closest to nature, be they Swiss villagers or Northwest pioneers.

Recipient of a 2010 Oregon Arts Commission Fellowship, Conkle has been invited to exhibit internationally at venues in Reykjavik and Rio de Janeiro as well as New York, Miami, and Portland. He recently has done public art commissions for TriMet/MAX Light Rail (look for the two odd and lumpy creatures on stumps facing a precarious-looking stack of lumpy chunks that is as much Brancusi and snowman…the trio is called “Burls will be burls”) and for PSU’s Smith Memorial Student Union Public Art + Residency. Conkle currently has a work in an invitational show at Augen Gallery.

Courtesy of The Oregon Arts Commission.

Artist Credit: Bruce Conkle

Exhibition: Oregon Arts Commission Fellows

Project Website

Oregon Arts Commission