Unsuspecting viewers could easily take sculptor David Middlebrook’s exhibit, Think Things, for the work of a surrealist-leaning naturalist. Its 18 environmentally oriented works outline fantastical scenarios in gravity-defying displays that are designed to focus our attention on greed, heedless consumption, political hubris and, most of all, the ecological catastrophe that awaits us.
In The Uncover Up, about the U.S. government’s post-Katrina failures, a blanket, fashioned out of bronze, stands improbably on its edges as it’s being whisked away by a beak with no body. Chalk Talk, an oblique reference to fossil fuel dependence, shows the beak and skull of what look like a pterodactyl resting comfortably on a bar stool built of slate from reclaimed blackboards, a material whose origins are the same as oil: petrified vegetation. Collision Course, a leaning tower built of precariously balanced egg shapes, was inspired by bird-airplane collisions, but could stand as a general warning against any number of man-made catastrophes. Thorn of Plenty and Natural Selection, two pieces featuring giant thorns sunk into bark-textured chunks of marble, deal, respectively, with the fiction of abundant resources and the fragile systems devised by nature to prevent their depletion. (The latter refers to the African acacia whose thorns stop elephants and other animals from denuding the landscape.)
Middlebrook gives America’s economic and political systems a good thrashing, too. 99%, a golden egg situated inside an eggshell that seems ready to topple, speaks of the precariousness of late-stage capitalism. The American Way, a huge safety pin topped by a cracked-open baseball, reminds us of another great American pastime: the application of Band-Aid solutions to serious problems. Congress, two giant pipes joined at the bowls, is not a riff on Magritte’s This is Not a Pipe; it’s a critique of dug-in opponents “blowing smoke up each other’s behinds,” the artist told me.
Visual polemics such as these would mean little if the objects that convey them didn’t embody unique qualities. Middlebrook’s always do. The 68-year-old retired San Jose State professor has built a career on perfecting eye-fooling patinas and on engineering visual sleights of hand that convincingly create the illusion of objects floating impossibly in space. The most arresting example, and also one of the more opaque, is Breath of Fresh Air, a remake of Duchamp’s Fountain. In it, exact replicas – done in bronze – of the canvas straps that truckers use to secure cargo, hold up a wax-resin urinal, which perfectly mimics porcelain.
Like the Pop/Funk/Conceptual artists who held center stage during Middlebrook’s formative years – William Wiley is the one that springs immediately to mind — he attaches terse, sometimes punning titles to his works that drop clues about their content. Luckily, his work stands on its own without text support. But the inside story, which goes missing here, would give us a richer appreciation of Middlebrook’s conceptual side, which is no less rigorous than his use of materials.
Take the Duchamp-inspired piece. It came, the artist told me, from the following chain of associations: 1) recognizing that the respirators he uses in his studio are the same shape as urinals; 2) remembering that Duchamp gave up painting because “it was too olfactory”; 3) remembering that his father once slammed art as a career move, saying “painting stinks”; and 4) recalling Duchamp’s influence as “a riddle maker and a practical joker” – qualities that well describe Middlebrook’s artistic persona.
About Chalk Talk, whose title refers to pre-game strategizing sessions in which basketball plays are diagrammed on a blackboard, Middlebrook says: "If you grind slate to dust, it burns “exactly like the oil fires Sadaam set during the Gulf War.” It’s conjunctions like these — of headline news, scientific fact and personal experience (Middlebrook once played basketball) that undergird his art.
Once, when he was installing a public commission, a child asked, “Did you make that thing?” “Yes, I did,” Middlebrook replied. “Are you a thing maker?” the kid pursued. Middlebrook pondered the question. Later he concluded: “I want to be thing maker, so I started calling myself a thing maker and added the word ‘think’ because I think.”
–DAVID M. ROTH
David Middlebrook: “Think Things” @ The McLoughlin Gallery through May 5, 2012.