by Mikko Lautamo
Marble begins as limestone buried deep underground, and is subjected to tremendous heat and pressure. When discovered in a quarry, huge industrial diamond saws and a constant stream of pressurized water separate massive chunks from veins, which are then shipped out all over the world and turned into counter tops, statuary and whatever else. Somewhere toward the tail end of this millennia-long process, Trent Burkett intercepts portions, making them the literal bases – and one might argue, the conceptual basis – of the sculptures now on view in an exhibition at JayJay called Redux.
The majority of these works come from the artist’s Construction series. Each of these tall, slender, wood-scrap constructions sits on a crudely formed marble base, oftentimes bearing the jagged tooth marks of the saw that originally cut them from the quarry. 001, at the entrance, still has the blue inventory number “001” painted on its base, denoting it was cut from the first of a long series of marble blocks. As with most of these works, 001 transitions from marble to an aged-looking block of solid wood and then rises to an airy tower of vertical wood scraps, assembled hastily over a few hours. The sketch-like character of the piecesclearly reveals the stream-of-consciousness process the artist uses to join the pieces. Architectural references – a joist here, a miter cut there – can sometimes be detected, but generally these works express chaos: barely holding themselves together and seemingly falling apart. Except for portions near the base, which remain as bare wood, each of these towers was once inverted and dipped in paint to create a uniform white finish that – again – points to the white marble base. This ordering of materials and surface textures (marble, solid wood blocks, scattered scraps with unfinished surfaces and finally, painted fragments) seemingly suggests that the tower is in a process of hardening and will one day become marble – if given enough time. As such, this and other works like it embody and amplify the gulf between geologic time (which is incomprehensibly vast), and human time (which in Burkett’s case can be measured in mere hours), reflecting the artist’s impulse to create quickly and spontaneously.
Other works, moored to a solid core, give off the same chaotic energy. Ramshackle #2 is a, well, ramshackle assembly of wine barrel staves anchored to a rough-hewn-then-smoothed cedar sphere. Visually the work recalls Cornelia Parker’s Cold Dark Matter (1991), though conceptually it’s more akin to a drunken display of construction prowess than an explosion. The base comes from a giant cedar tree that fell at the University of the Pacific campus in Stockton while Burkett was teaching there.
There are some low points: Oasis Series: Mesquite, a log with white paint, hangs like a smoked ham but is not otherwise appetizing. Tangle, an old oil can with tangled wire suspended from it, offers more, but doesn’t utilize paint dipping nearly as effectively as anything seen in the Construction series. Ascetic is close to being brilliant: A painted pair of ram’s horns adorn an altar-like assemblage of thick wood blocks; above it a steeple-like “satellite” of dipped wood appears to suspend the larger, lower section by the horns. The title and imagery begin to speak to the shamanistic and spiritual elements of Burkett’s work, but as soon as those ideas begin to
coalesce they sink back into the piece’s constituent parts, signaling little more than their hasty assembly. If Burkett’s work has a deep soul, and I believe it does, he does not display enough of it here.
Burkett studied with Robert Brady and his contemporaries at CSU Sacramento. Like Brady, his transition from ceramic to wood imparts a material sensitivity to his work. Throughout there are wooden wedges that, while functionally redundant, speak to the point and counterpoint of balance and insecurity. Prior collaborations with ceramic artist Scott Parady also hint at Burkett’s connection to ecology and the romantic ideals associated with the western landscape — palpably evidenced by the reverence he invests into wood, marble and found objects. Formally and conceptually his work can also be linked to Leonardo Drew’s jutting wooden wall sculptures, and to the skewed architectural experiment performed by Kurt Schwitters (1887-1947) in the Merzbau (1927-37).
Burkett is a collector. He sees an object he has no immediate use for and decides to play the long game. Ram’s skulls, antlers, pot metal ornamentation and junk make cameos throughout these sculptures. An ornate door is chopped into tiny blocks and strewn across four sculptures (Construction series). A coat hanger was dipped in paint and left to drip dry for 100 days until the pigment formed icicle-like protrusions (Oasis Series: Hanger). The leftover residue from wine long ago enjoyed still clings to the surface of the wood (Ramshackle #2). Overall, materials like lacquer, stains, and inventory numbers hold equal stature with paint and polish. These works are assemblages of happenstance, processes acted out on found materials with a constant eye toward deep time and the unseen natural processes that generated those materials to begin with.
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Trent Burkett: “Redux” @ JayJay through May 25, 2019.
About the Author:
Mikko Lautamo is an artist and educator from Sacramento. His work uses computer code to create interactive and never-repeating installations centering on blended biological, social, and economic systems. He teaches Electronic Art at Sac State and has exhibited work in the United States, Europe, Australia and online. His work can be viewed on Vimeo.