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By Micah J. Malone

In Bruce Conkle and Marne Lucas’s exhibition, “Warlord Sun Kind: The Genesis of Eco-Baroque”, the artists have evoked the similarities between the natural world and the Baroque era of King Louis XIV of France and “the culture of decadence and hubris that flourished under his rule” as writer and artist Ryan Pierce noted in the catalog essay. The juxtapositions are strikingly humorous as photographs of “Burl forests” are presented in competition with the excesses of King Louis XIV. Indeed, as a piece of driftwood from the forest shows, art has a tough time competing with the strangeness and decadence found in those woods.

A concern for the natural environment has been at the heart of Conkle’s practice for years. Snowmen preserved inside of freezers for lack of icy temperatures, Bigfoot pelts and “Sasquatch Feng Shui" all allude to man’s problems with the outside world. However, while all of this work has been formal in some messy, gooey, barely held together kind of way, it is the decadence of a “Baroque Style” that has gone the furthest in establishing an economic ethos within the work.

Lucas and Conkle have loosely appropriated the formal layout of the Palace of Versailles, the converted hunting lodge that served as Louis’s showcase. Substituting the palace’s extravagant gilded mirrors, however, are panels covered in aluminum foil (a favorite for Conkle who has made entire exhibitions with the shiny, cheap material) nailed to the wall. These panels serve as both ornament for the room and a backdrop for photographs in gaudy frames (bought used on eBay and craigslist of course), “ceremonial shovels”, Burl trees and other examples of “excess” found in nature. The centerpiece of the space is a tanning bed converted to a chandelier with small natural crystals and rocks dangling below, while the top is weighted with spray foam and massive potted plants. As a chandelier it is truly one of a kind, with juxtapositions and aesthetics all its own.

While the content of the installation, and the “Eco-Baroque” ethos in general, may be linking baroque and environmental aesthetics, how Lucas and Conkle achieve this has much to do with an almost obsessive attention to cheap materials. While King Louis XIV had gilded mirrors, Lucas and Conkle’s surrogate is not only cheap aluminum foil, but recycled foil gathered from friends. The aesthetic of recycling brings distinction to a material that can be of particular delight. For instance, one panel is made entirely from burrito wrappers where letters for what kind of meat one ordered is, at times, still present. It is a sense of wonderment that such a shiny decadent panel could be achieved by spending so little.

It might be argued that their method of recycling has more to do with environmental responsibility than with any economic interest. Indeed, why go buy roles of aluminum foil when so much is thrown out? This principle is also at work with the crystals and rocks hung from the chandelier. Overwhelmingly lit with the lights from the tanning bed (they substituted the tanning lights with non UV bulbs so as not to endanger viewers) the crystals take on a majestic glow and translucence that is impressive at every level of the aesthetic spectrum. Yet, the cost for such a spectacle: a few trips to a crystal shop in town and some walks in nature.

None of this is to say Conkle and Lucas are prescribing a path to economic responsibility. After all, it is still rather extravagant to hang a tanning bed in a middle of a gallery. Yet, this is precisely the point. While King Louis XIV had his excesses, artists should not be denied the impulse to create decadence. Just not for the same cost. The bargain way of making art that Conkle and Lucas seem to have mastered fits our economic times perfectly. Their indulgence is not limited to extravagant materials and out of reach labor costs, but is found in nature and performed with a stringent economy of means.

The Art Gym

"Warlord Sun King: The Genesis of Eco-Baroque" is on view from February 23rd to March 25th at the Art Gym at Marylhurst University.

All images are courtesy of the artists and The Art Gym.

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