Written by Conor O’Brien, Living Gallery
In the shadow beneath everything there is this seething discomfort that pushes outward, forever toward the sun. The city relegates domains to nature, parks and sidewalks where grass and trees sprout seemingly from some organic core, but this is purely nostalgic. They are planted on top of the edifice, and while they bend theatrically toward sunlight beneath a shallow coat of soil, their stunted roots tickle numb pavement.
A city park is a great potted plant, a safe expression of that groaning core muted under countless leagues of steel and hollowed earth, muted but not subdued. The city is humanity’s indulgence in confusion manifest. The impotent desire to escape nature and the body that ends only in a synthetic recreation of the body, and nostalgic oases of nature.
The buildings we filter through, where we live and conduct our daily rituals, are an expression of corporeality cast in brick, rubber, and steel; abstract and geometric, but still distinctly bodily. And in the hollow spaces, the tunnels, the pores, the moist and dark pockets of the city, organisms sprout and spawn.
This constant, intimate interaction of live flesh on blind stone produces a masochistic delirium: the desire to be split open and spilled over sunheated cement; to release upon rock and brick that throbbing pink core, inverted and all nerve-endings; to fill every dead crevice and corner with living, fertile material; absolute sensory pressed against absolute numbness, synthetic-organic fused: this is the experience of city life.
This urban pastiche of materials organic and synthetic comes through in Brent Owen’s work. All of Owen’s sculptures use wood as their base material: stumps, driftwood, branches form the core of each piece.
The synthetic-organic interplay comes through by various means: in some pieces the wood is carved and painted to resemble neon lights, and a neon effect is recreated by shining an outside light-source on the sculpture;
Several pieces resemble large tapestries, one even extending past the wall and curving onto the floor in the manner of fabric;
Other pieces, while retaining the original shape of the stump or tree branch, are painted and decorated with various objects (eagle decals, hawaiian leis, toy eyeballs, jewelery, etc.) in such a way that the forms enter the realm of the surreal.
Even when the objects are not expressly representing the body or human figure as in the case of “Flamin’ Dogs” and “Flesh Wreath,” even when they remain abstract or free associative there is still something vaguely corporeal about them, with their wrinkled, veiny exteriors, protruding limbs, and gaping orifices. “Out of the Sky” resembles a giant heart or stomach; “Mystery Cave,” while resembling a normal tree stump on the outside, has a fleshy, pink, and bejeweled interior.
The mixture of (usually dead) organic material with synthetic material is present in most kinds of art, but in Owen’s work, this association has been foregrounded. The dead organic material is given a new corporeality, a revived organic form, in part by being brought into contact with inorganic material, especially those which are associated with the body, as in wreaths, jewelry, piercings, tattoos.
Piercings and tattoos are significant in Owen’s work partly because they call to mind an everyday microcosm of a larger synthetic-organic co-evolution: to fill skin and veins with ink, a synthetic blood; to open and expose the skin with metal jewelry.
When one pierces oneself, the skin first reacts negatively, becomes irritated, and retreats from the alien object. Then the skin heals and (unsuccessfully) attempts to fuse with the object, to adopt the object into its physiology.
The injection of new technology into daily life follows this path: the eyes grow fond of artificial light; the lungs acclimate to exhaust-laced air, the stomach, to digesting mass-produced chemicals; the spine contorts to fit the harsh geometry of its environment; the body, the blood is kept alive on electricity and synthetic medicine. In that great laboratory, the city, these newer, stranger permutations of the human form are spawned generation after generation; and the old generations, like Dr. Frankensteins, look with horror upon the unrecognizable creations they’ve reared into being: pierced with metal, filled with ink, and speaking a strange tongue, their brains throbbing with ideas fearless and unholy.
All photos on this post are © Conor O’Brien 2014
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