Fabric, vinyl, plastic, thread and mixed media
63″ x 27″ x 38″
Photo: courtesy of Walter Maciel Gallery
Everyone is a shambles every once in a while. Robb Putnam’s oddly endearing sculptures, by contrast, are almost always a shambles; they seem barely to hold themselves together. The fact that they depict animals only adds to their pathos. Composed of swathes of fabric and plastic, leather and rubber, dripping thread like Spanish moss, they present a tattered patchwork of competing textures and colors; although they seem oblivious-and at times, quite affable-their disparate parts are blatantly exposed to the viewer’s gaze. Yet, they also exude an undeniable presence. His 2011 work called Dunderhead, for instance, which stands nearly nine feet tall, depicts the head of a dopey-looking pooch: it seems part cartoon character, part Easter Island totem, and part stuffed animal that was loved to the point of disintegration.
“To me, it’s important that there’s something sincere in them, that they communicate a sense of vulnerability, or some form of human emotion,” Putnam says, standing in his temporary studio, in Los Angeles, amidst a veritable bestiary of new works-in-progress. “Are they coming together or are they decomposing? Is that their fur or their guts?” And if his panoply of animals at times seem slightly discombobulated or benign, they are not completely domesticated, either. “It’s always about the misfit in some way, from the stray dog to the rat,” he reflects. “They’re on the periphery of civilization, scavengers-bears, coyotes, skunks-they interact with us… Maybe it’s like imagined friends,” he muses. “It’s almost like there’s this pantheon.”
Growing up in the Seattle suburbs, Putnam recollects, he felt like an isolated kid, “very much involved in my own imaginary world.” At 16, while hiking in the mountains, he was chased by a bear. Afterward, he recalls, “I had these dreams of bears. They’re protecting me and they’re a threat at the same time.” Another animal he had a special relationship with are rabbits. “I would imagine I was surrounded by this circle of spirit rabbits, they would protect me, but I could send them out into the world…” In particular, there was an imaginary, large pink bunny figure, like Harvey in the famous Jimmy Stewart movie. Eventually, he recalls, all the animals began to “come together, to become one thing… There’s a fluidity to them,” he explains.
For four years, from 1996-2000, Putnam lived in Japan, an experience that influenced him deeply. In particular, he cites the phenomenon of animal greeter figures that welcome visitors to shops. “They were kind of these demented cartoon characters; even in the things that were meant to be cute, there was something wrong with them,” Putnam recalls. At various times, he worked in mixed-media collage, painting, music, and sound art. In 2006, he moved from Seattle to the Bay Area to attend the graduate program at Mills College in Oakland, where he studied with such artists as Ron Nagle, Hung Liu, and Anna Valentina Murch.
Since then, even as he has stuck with animals as a subject, he has evolved his approach. At first, his creatures were deliberately cartoony; now, he says, the interest more is in “actual animals, rather than imaginary ones.” The works’ raw, open-ended texture has developed too. Originally, he was coating the sculptures with melted wax or sheets of plastic, to give them more visual coherence; eventually, he decided to “just let the materials be what they are,” experimenting with the discordant textures. An avid scavenger-not unlike some of his subjects-he gleans his materials from a range of sources, among them salvage shops, thrift stores, and the discard pile at his building in Oakland. His building blocks include clothing, blankets, backpacks, old boxing gloves, different types of plastic, old tents, even old parachutes… “I started to collect a lot of things made out of vinyl,” he recalls.
Putnam’s 2014 show at Rena Bransten Projects in San Francisco featured numerous small-scale, wall-mounted works (“I call them pelts”), as well as works on paper. He is currently preparing for a September solo show at Walter Maciel Gallery in Los Angeles. After a fire at the building adjoining his Oakland studio displaced him, he temporarily moved his studio to LA; for the last two months, he has been working doggedly out of a friend’s studio, on the edge of Downtown. To gear up for the show, he brought with him various completed works and works-in-progress, as well as several “giant Ziploc bags full of stuff… from my own collection.”
He also brought an industrial sewing machine, which is still new to him; until recently, he sewed everything by hand. But beneath their craft-project demeanor, the construction of his works can be quite complex. Some pieces are built in separate segments, joined with Velcro, or with hooks and grommets; the largest works are mounted on carts with casters, with concrete weights to balance out the facial protuberances. Due to their pliancy, the pieces change slightly in various iterations. “The work is not static,” Putnam notes cheerfully. “Every time it’s in a different place, it’s a slightly different form.”
With their mesmerizing meld of materials, and unlikely blend of affability and pathos, Putnam’s works are disarming in any guise. And given LA’s affinity for bodily abjection and Disney- esque dystopianism, his creatures seem well suited to the aesthetic climate of Southern California. “There is a sense of imperfection and vulnerability to all the work,” Putnam reflects. Behind him, a large tattered bear seems to clamber down the wall; a row of skinless rats peek about at his feet. “There’s the seduction and sensuality that draws you in… But viewed from closer, they can be skinned, or like guts-it puts you back. Then maybe you look closer in a different way,” he adds. “It’s an emotional feedback loop. Perhaps you discover something in yourself in that process.”
Robb Putnam’s new show, “Loiterers,” will be on view at Walter Maciel Gallery in Los Angeles from September 12 – October 24, 2015.