Bruce Conkle and Tom Greenwood at Ditch Projects

Bruce Conkle. photo via


“Shovels are used to produce homes and food, as well as freeways, dams, and nuclear plants. Smoke is often sensed but unseen. ”
Bruce Conkle, 2011

Smoke and Shovels is the latest from Portland artist Bruce Conkle, opening this Saturday July 16 at 7 PM at Ditch Projects (303 S 5th Avenue #165, Springfield OR).

When you see work by Portland artist Bruce Conkle, you may not immediately group him with the artists who earnestly employ and/or address the natural in their work. That’s because Conkle’s sense of humor (and the absurd) kicks his work into a hard left turn that spirals away from the obvious. And it helps that his sculptures might be made of tin foil, pink foam, bent wire, and/or a coconut with a little crystal growth.

Sometimes the work is poetic, as with his silver-plated burls, great natural bulbous tree growths harvested by Conkle and wall-mounted in a trophy like manner as sculptural reliefs. (He ironically calls them “Philosopher’s Burls.”) Sometimes it’s grotesque, as with the slimy pink suspended blob that appears to be on Pepto-Bismal life support with an improvised pump-and-surgical-tubing apparatus that keeps it coated in goo. Sometimes it’s both funny and very sad: the recurring figure of the sweet snowman is terribly melancholy in the face of global warming. And sometimes it’s just elegantly weird as with the collaboration Conkle did with Marne Lucas, “Warlord Sun King,” that featured a hanging tanning bed as a chandelier with dangling chunks of various crystals and minerals.

Conkle’s Swiss ancestry recurs in cartoon form with the artist posing in lederhosen with various homemade alphorns that might be made of a patchwork of wood scraps or have the sounding end of the horn slathered with some kind of slimy-looking substance. So his interest in nature is, in spite of gilded burls, less romantic and more clear-eyed or warts-and-all after all. One can imagine that what we see as postcard picture perfect is, to the inhabitant, as practical and functional as a horn to communicate with far-flung neighbors…as romantic as a cell phone call. And the often improvised or provisional appearance of his sculptures to me relates to the make-do and can-do necessities of life for those who live closest to nature, be they Swiss villagers or Northwest pioneers.

Recipient of a 2010 Oregon Arts Commission Fellowship, Conkle has exhibited internationally.

Also opening is Tom Greenwood’s History Publishing Company. Greenwood, of  Jackie-O Motherfucker, is a longtime musician and multimedia artist. (Jackie-O plays at the opening.) Much of Greenwood’s visual work has been in conjunction with his music and performance as cover art, posters, and ephemera.  Recently, Greenwood’s work was curated in 2010 into a solo show at CUE Art Foundation by Chris Johanson.

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