Breath of Fresh Air, 2011, David Middlebrook
Ceramic resin and bronze, 5′ x 6′ x 3′
Photo: Courtesy The McLoughlin Gallery
“Artists are people who make things,” states sculptor David Middlebrook, in a recent interview at his sprawling, rustic studio space in the Los Gatos hills. “I’m a thing-maker.” And while this may be true for artists in general, it’s particularly true about Middlebrook’s sculpture, as it is about not only creating something of aesthetic value that dialogues with art history, but it’s also very much about the physicality of the objects, the materials used and how they’re manipulated to bring Middlebrook’s ideas to form.
Middlebrook’s early formal artistic pursuits were in ceramics, creating pieces often described as abstract, albeit, “I still always used a lot of narrative,” he says. “You could recognize actual objects, even though they were distorted.” He worked for years in that medium through the late ’70s and early ’80s and found himself in the company of such well-known ceramicists as Peter Voulkos and Robert Arneson. That all changed, however, when he was commissioned to make a larger version of a ceramic piece to be placed outdoors (using ceramic was thus not possible). Since then, Middlebrook’s work has continued to grow, both in size and as regards the variety of materials he incorporates (ceramics no longer figures in his work other than to occasionally create molds for casting other materials).
When asked about his medium of choice, Middlebrook states, “I have a philosophy about that; it’s like poetry: think about if a poet were just stuck with one word; I use the right material for the right voice.” That material ranges from steel to stone to resin to wood to an experimental fiberglass-based medium, among others. Middlebrook’s inspiration and interests are also wide ranging, and the wide variation in the appearance of his work reflects this, from a life-size rowboat on stilt-like supports made to look like reeds to a reinterpretation of Picasso’s Bull’s Head (1943). While Middlebrook does recognize art historical influences in his work–in particular, Isamu Noguchi and Marcel Duchamp–he says that his ideas come mostly from everyday life, be that one of the numerous science magazines he subscribes to, or the news.
Common threads that run through the work are, indeed, a direct link to artists and art history, facsimiles of recognizable objects–often referencing nature–and a progressive political message often focused on equal rights or environmental concerns. Physically, all of the works are an assemblage of various distinct pieces. Two recent works heavily delving into Middlebrook’s art historical interests are currently on view in the exhibition “Personal Structures: Time, Space, Existence” at the Palazzo Bembo, part of the Venice Biennale (on view through November 23). The exhibition, overseen by the nonprofit Global Art Affairs Foundation, is a group show featuring 78 artists from around the world; Middlebrook is one of six US artists invited to participate. The foundation’s aim is to “heighten the awareness about the more philosophical themes in contemporary art.” For Middlebrook, the theme of personal structures “means to me, we build structures of philosophy that fits our values that then get translated into our imagery though our personal expression.”
The works Middlebrook contributed, Retirement (2013) and A Breath of Fresh Air (2011), are nods to Duchamp: the former is a play on the Bicycle Wheel (1913), where the wheel is replaced by a fabricated parasol featuring a hand-painted graphic of the chocolate grinder image found in Duchamp’s The Bride Striped Bare of Her Bachelors, Even (1915-23) (also a reference to Duchamp’s final oil painting, a medium he abandoned as a result of being sensitive to paint odors); it rests on a handcrafted bicycle fork mounted on a handmade wooden stool that has the handle of the parasol as one of it legs. The latter is a replica of Duchamp’s Fountain urinal, and it’s held up by what appear as respirator straps (gravitational inversion, heavier objects held aloft by apparently unsubstantial supports, also figures in many of Middlebrook’s works). Middlebrook plays on the fact that the urinal looks like a respirator, and that piece breathed life into Duchamp’s career, and into art history, as a seminal work of conceptual art.
The greatest strength of Middlebrook’s work, beyond his ability to bend any material to his will (“I’ve been told I’m an alchemist,” Middlebrook says. “I invent processes that suit my needs.”), is the almost puzzle-like multiple and layered meanings that can be teased out of them. They’re playful, serious, beautiful, socially and culturally relevant. And as such, Middlebrook’s “things” very much take shape as art.
“Personal Structures” is on view at the Palazzo Bembo as part of the Venice Biennale in Venice, Italy. From June 1 – November 23, 2013. www.palazzobembo.org
David Middlebrook shows on the West Coast with The McLoughlin Gallery, in San Francisco. www.mgart.com