Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Little Wooden Boxes by Clark Derbes

Robert Boyd 

When I walked into the Clark Derbes exhibit at Redbud Gallery, I liked what I saw--crude wooden boxes with geometric designs painted on them. They charmed me right away. I liked how the geometric painting wasn't taped-off and precise and how the corners of the boxes felt rough-hewn as opposed to carefully machined.

Clark Derbes, Charles II, carved and polychromed poplar maple wood, 2012

But wait--as you look more closely you realize that these aren't boxes at all, but shallow relief sculptures. The angles carved into the wood combined with the painting give them a boxy illusion when seen from head on, but as sculptures, they are far shallower than that appear.

Clark Derbes, Charles II, carved and polychromed poplar maple wood, 2012

I typically don't like art built around optical illusions. It's too gimmicky. Once the illusion starts to bore you, what's left? Usually nothing--the trickery was the whole point. But that isn't the case here. What attracted me wasn't the illusion but the beautiful colors and folkish approach. It's the imperfections of these hand-made objects that appeal to me.

Clark Derbes, Phillip, carved and polychromed poplar maple wood, 2012

Clark Derbes, Charles II, carved and polychromed poplar maple wood, 2012

While the illusion is quite strong, Derbes is in effect doing nothing more than what relief sculptors have been doing since ancient Greece--using a shallow space to depict a deep space. It's clever, sure, but it's not what these piece are about. 

Clark Derbes, Robin, carved and polychromed poplar maple wood, 2012

To me, they are a joining of American folk/outsider art traditions and modernism. This is modernism as if it were being created by a naive artist or a self-taught artist. One might be reminded of Marisol, but she always infused her work with figurative elements. Derbes is rigorously abstract. I am also reminded of the wooden toys made by Lyonel Feininger and Joaquin Torres-Garcia (as well as Torres-Garcia's wood assemblages).

Clark Derbes, Jefferson, carved and polychromed poplar maple wood, 2012

Charles Jencks, writing about post-modernism in architecture, said that post-modernism allowed an architect to draw from the entire history of architecture, up to and including modernism. Derbes, with his chainsawed worn boxes, is choosing a history for these pieces, whether intentionally or not. As Borges wrote in "Kafka and His Precursors," each work in the present creates its own past. In short, Derbes not only produces charming pieces of polychromed carved wood, but he suggest an art history that consists of Marisol, Feininger, Torres-Garcia, various self-taught woodcarvers, etc.

There is a very entertaining short film of Derbes at work by Matt Day which can be viewed here.


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