In an age when the virtual and the real are becoming increasingly intertwined, Robert Ortbal’s transformations of the everyday into the otherworldly seem like perfect evocations of this predicament. Crafted in a variety of media, the works range from gnarly and gangly to delicate and poetic. In many cases, you will not know what they are made of without touching them or being told. Thus, Styrofoam, Astroturf, steel, e-waste, wood and rubber pet toys become grist for objects that seem both strange and familiar. Re-purposed with resin, paint and flocking, they mimic a variety of man-made and natural forms.
The allusions produced by these visual sleights of hand include microscopic views of chemical reactions, deep-sea organisms, exotic plants, constellations and hybrid mash-ups of concepts that exist only in the artist’s imagination. That they call to mind things we know (or think we know) is merely a by-product of a working process that began some years back when the artist tried to envision what 2-D patterns might look like if they were translated to three dimensions. That investigation quickly led to something bigger: a search for essences. Not actual essences, as in molecular structures, but unfathomable things, like the physical structure of smells as they exist in psychological, emotional and sensory space.
The most radical example in Ortbal’s oeuvre is his longstanding Architecture of a Scent series — sculptures that attempt to give form to the state of sensory confusion known as synesthesia. The series began with spindly projections of wires festooned with Styrofoam balls, but has since evolved into objects of greater mass and proportion, such as Architecture of a Scent: Somewhere off the Coast of Davenport. It contains no visible remnants of the coastal hamlet north of Santa Cruz. What we get instead is an ungainly construction that looks like a series of exhaust pipes embedded in a coral reef. Mounted to a pinkish slab of weighty material that’s stained to resemble faux marble, the whole assemblage, which is attached to a hinge, can be swung from side to side, like a gate with a malignant growth.
In Oz, to take another example, a plastic container assumes the guise of a granite vessel sprouting a piece of molded resin. It looks like tree fungus. Arising from this protuberance is a miniature “broadcast tower” decorated with calculator keys. The object’s cavity contains pieces of Styrofoam carved to look like railroad spikes. Elsewhere in the show, which consists of eight sculptures and three intaglio prints, the artist uses Styrofoam and other synthetic materials to evoke jewel-encrusted treasures, aerial views of primordial landscapes, sea plants and floating cities.
While Ortbal, like many contemporary sculptors, uses everyday items and non-traditional art materials, his is a unique voice – one that’s pushing sculpture into the post-industrial future. While this work may at first register as a symptom of this confused, polymorphous state, the longer you look the more its insistent materiality begins to feels like the antidote to that condition – or, at the very least, a viable marker for what lies ahead.
–DAVID M. ROTH
Robert Ortbal: Different Parts of Remembering @ JAYJAY through Dec. 23, 2010.
The Robert Ortbal Interview
David M. Roth: When I look at your work, I always think that materials speak to you in the same way high-frequency sounds speak to animals: in them you “hear” things most of us can’t. Do materials, by themselves, suggest forms?
Robert Ortbal: Thanks, I like that metaphor. These days I seem to be a true omnivore when it comes to materials. Back when I was an undergraduate I worked almost exclusively in clay; but by the time I was in graduate school I was exploring all different kinds of materials and processes. Once I finished school, large-scale installations using domestic or household materials became my focus. To answer your question, sometimes materials suggest forms; but often they don’t. I wouldn’t want to be classified as a found object artist. I have always wanted to have a lot of latitude when it comes to developing my work. I spend a lot of time in the studio, so I want to have as much fun as I can in while still approaching the work in a serious and provocative way. Typically, I develop imagery and then search out the right materials and processes to get at what I want to say.
DR: You use things like flocking and resin very skillfully – not just to conceal the identity of your materials but to make them closely resemble things they are not. I’m thinking, specifically of Oz, where plastic hose has the color and texture of granite. I realize that the gulf between appearance and reality has always been central your work, but now I’m feeling as if you’ve taken it to a higher level.
RO: I have been interested, for a while now, in making work about things that are ineffable. I use a wide variety of materials and processes as a means to express things and spaces that are very difficult to talk about. In the past I have likened my materials to spores, which I can replicate and mutate into objects, inviting the audience to use their imagination: to see the Rococo as modern; packing foam as a petri-dish; rubber balls, wire and Styrofoam beads as a nervous system. Recently, I have started to juxtapose all of these domestic materials, gleaned from places like Dollar Store and Home Deport with organic materials and traditional sculpture supplies. When I bring them together, a new reality emerges and the sculptures begin singing their own shrill quirky songs.
DR: You’ve stated that you strive to give form to essences. But my sense is that for you, essence means something quite different from what it might mean for a scientist. Essence for you seems to be more about the nature of how we perceive rather than the actual properties of the thing being perceived. Care to comment?
RO: Yes, it is more like the way I imagine a poet trying to describe an object or a place. Although at times, since I am working with actual materials and the physical processes, there is a kinship with the scientists since we have to observe and pay close attention to what is really happening with the materials and objects and not get too lost in the theories and what I imagine the work is saying.
DR: Describe your working process.
RO: Oh boy…that’s difficult! (Long pause.) Often, it begins as a very simple sketch or short phrase jotted down in one of the many notebooks I keep and develop over time. Depending on when the entry goes into the notebook and what I am working on at the time, its gestation period can vary dramatically — from hours to years. I often rework and scour my notebooks at the beginning of a new cycle or when I get stuck on a particular work during the fabrication process. I certainly revisit them whenever I am about to begin an installation and when I go about titling the work. Next, depending on the idea entered into the notebook, I source the materials and begin fabrication. Occasionally, the process can be clean and neat and I proceed to the finish line in a timely manner. More likely, the piece evolves and at times even stalls only to later morph into something else. Sometimes I will recombine parts or materials from years past to make a work that gets at what I am searching for.
DR: Your work departs from any reality we know, yet it also seems well-grounded in things we do know – or things we think we know. Is that your intention, to operate in this gap?
RO: I have always been interested in exploring what is seen and unseen. A good example is my Architecture of a Scent series. That gap in the work and the awkward reality it portrays stems from the source of their construction being rooted in imagery that is equal parts real and imagined. I use this strange combination of the natural and the artificial to express the tensions that exist between the past and the future, technology and the body, the rational and the mystical and the individual and society.
DR: You mentioned Architecture of a Scent, a concept that involves giving form to smell: something that has no inherent shape. The title immediately calls to mind the sensory affliction known as synesthesia. How did you become interested in this?
RO: This is not something I believe I have or have ever studied. However, back in the ‘90s when I was making a lot of installation-based works, I was interested in making something that engaged more of the senses. I used scent in installations many times for its olfactory responses because I liked the way it can trigger memory so much faster than purely visual works. I even liked what it did for the work when the scent was only implied, like using cut onions. They could suggest tears and crying even though, phenomenologically speaking, they had begun to whither and dry out and had long since lost their actual power. So I guess the intermingling of sensory information these days comes more from my imagination. Again, it’s closer to poets’ methods and motives than to scientists’.
DR: People always liken your work to oceanic forms. Given the way a lot of it looks it seems impossible not to. Yet the association, at least from what you’ve said before, bothered you. Why?
RO: Well not always. I think it was more prevalent about five years ago when I was really interested in creating hybrids by crossing parts of the plant, animal, and mineral kingdoms with certain sensibilities from the Rococo and Art Nouveau periods. During that time, the work, I agree, really spoke of oceanic forms. The coral-like forms, in particular, spoke beautifully to the nature of hybridization. Coral, which is really diverse order of the animal kingdom, is commonly mistaken for a plant, so when it came to creating hybrids, coral was an obvious choice. The oceanic association only bothered me when people stopped at this most obvious read of the work and didn’t take the time to see how it opened up into all the other associations I had built into the work.
DR: You’ve stated that you try to not create things from direct observation, but in this show there are at least two pieces that seem to have been directly inspired by observation. I’m thinking of Sometime around Sunset which strongly recalls the spires of Bryce Canyon, and Badlands, which resembles a piece of the Earth’s crust viewed from a high elevation. If so, does this represent a different working method? The pieces are quite unlike what I’ve seen from you in the past.
RO: The geography of Southern and Central Utah where Bryce Canyon is located has always had a very strong attraction for me. It is as if the flesh (i.e. the trees) has been scraped back to expose the bones of the place. Even the color of the rock has a way of changing my mood.
When I drive out into the red rock I get more and more excited the closer and closer I get to such places. So yes, the works are certainly inspired by these places; however they are not based on direct observation of a specific geographic location. Instead, it’s is more like a distillation all of the canyons I have visited.
Also, these works do represent a different method of working. They begin with subtraction, which is really a different sensibility from the collage and assemblage fabrication techniques I often use. I carved these forms from blocks of foam a year or two ago and then I put them away for awhile. Then, I covered them with layers and layers of resin and finally I surfaced them this summer and fall in time for the show.
DR: You've spoken of translating decorative 2-D patterns into 3-D forms. It feels like an impossible task. Clearly this is something you either have to imagine from scratch or else use some kind of computer-based imaging system to accomplish. How do you accomplish it?
RO: Around 2000 I got the idea to make a large chandelier-like sculpture. I had always wanted to make one but could never really justify what seemed like too much of an indulgence. Then I came up with the idea of substituting song for light. This felt significant enough – it gave me the permission to begin. At the time I really didn’t know what I was getting myself into. Looking back, it turned into a very important work for me titled February’s Song (it ended up being exhibited as part of the Eureka fellowship show at the UC Berkeley Art Museum). I often think about my exhibitions as being similar to a collection of poems. With this piece I realized it was more like working on a novel. I began by making 12 motorized songbirds — 12 wind instruments that sang and pecked away up in the 6-foot branches of the chandelier. They were activated with a motion sensor and choreographed electronically. When it came to the chandelier form, I wanted to make something grand, something in the tradition of the great European chandeliers. Since I hadn’t actually been to I planned a trip and followed it up with a residency at Sculpture Space in upstate NY to fabricate the work since my studio in Emeryville wasn’t equipped with all of the metal working tools I needed to do the job.
During the residency, I began to realize I was at the beginning of a 5 to 10 year project. Up until then I had very little interest in all of that really decorative work I labeled the “Baroque”. Now I became obsessed. I started reading all about it, and ended up making another trip back to study, first hand, what I now realize is the Rococo.
While I was absorbing all of the decorative and applied arts of the 18th century, I began to notice that when all of these wonderful patterns were executed, they typically were carved relief or, when they did get three-dimensional, they only went as far as the planer. I couldn’t really find any examples of truly three-dimensional works that employed the more complex patterns that were present in so many of the period’s two-dimensional works.
Ultimately, I did end up making a few works that, I feel, use a more complex pattern than simply repeating a single motif to occupy three-dimensional space. However, what starts to happen is the pattern begins to get so complicated that it breaks down in a sense because it becomes too difficult to read and you lose the rhythm and lyrical qualities that where delivered two-dimensionally.
DR: What contemporary artists do you feel a close connection to?
RO: There are many artists in the Bay Area and a handful in Sacramento who I greatly respect and feel a very close connection to in the sense of having a continued dialogue about our work. But after having gotten so obsessed Rococo and Art Nouveau, I seem to be more and more connected to works of the past. A good example is the Hauntology show the Berkeley Art Museum. I thought it was a really great. However, it was the Flowers of the Four Seasons show from the Clark collection that really resonated with me. Those screens of gold from the late Edo period that traditionally served as room dividers flicker beautifully between brilliantly decorated furnishing for the home and tender glimpses of the natural world. They are really engaging and affected my mood more than the works in Hauntology, which people might expect me to be more in sync with. I visited the shows with my wife and remember mentioning to her afterwards how great I felt having seen all of those works.
DR: What do you hope people get from looking at your work?
I like to leave people with questions –questions about what it means to be human.
Learn more about Robert Ortbal.