Monday, May 15, 2017

Wunderkammern: an oblique profile of artist Jeff Decker

“Wunderkammern, or cabinets of curiosities, arose in mid-sixteenth-century Europe as repositories for all manner of wondrous and exotic objects. In essence these collections—combining specimens, diagrams, and illustrations from many disciplines; marking the intersection of science and superstition; and drawing on natural, manmade, and artificial worlds—can be seen as the precursors to museums.”

—“Wunderkammer: A Century of Curiosities” MoMA (2008)

“Wunderkammer or curiosity cabinets were created as a result of a growing desire among the peoples of Europe to place mankind accurately within the grand scheme of nature and the divine. This need developed during the fourteenth century and continued into the seventeenth century. The Renaissance wunderkammer, like the modern museum, were subject to preservation and interpretation. However, they differed from the modern museum in some fundamental aspects of purpose and meaning. Renaissance wunderkammer were private spaces, created and formed around a deeply held belief that all things were linked to one another through either visible or invisible similarities. People believed that by detecting those visible and invisible signs and by recognizing the similarities between objects, they would be brought to an understanding of how the world functioned, and what humanity’s place in it was.”

—“History of the Wunderkammern (cabinet of curiosities),” Tate UK (2003)

I think Jeff Decker’s life might be well understood as a sort of cabinet of curiosities. For the sake of this post, though, I should probably focus things here to just say that Jeff Decker’s studio is a cabinet of curiosities.

Earlier this year I was offered a chance to write short piece responding to an artistic work (painting, sculpture, photography, etc.) for the upcoming Mormon Art Center Festival, taking place in NYC later this summer. I am not an art critic and this was not to be art criticism. The proposal was kind of a blind date type of arrangement, since it was only after saying “yes” that writers were shown the work they were responding to. And it wasn’t until I was sent an image of sculptor Jeff Decker’s piece that I knew I was in trouble. What to say about the front end of a taxidermied rhino, regaled with spoils, saddled and ridden by a type of grotesque, chubby homunculus—and was that canopy the carapace of a sea tortoise? By now I was absolutely intrigued, but where to begin?

Once I’d decided on a set of short fables as the way to approach this, I decided to take my friend Laura up on her suggestion to arrange a visit to Jeff’s Hippodrome Studio in Springville, UT. She got me his contact info and he graciously set aside a Saturday afternoon last month to meet me there. I brought a notebook and camera, on which I’d stupidly set the ISO wrong, but some of the photos still turned out alright. I would describe Hippodrome as just as much a collection or museum (a shrine of the Muses) as it is also a working shop. And in this post I can only begin to scratch the surface of what turned out to be easily one of the most fascinating conversations I’ve had in my life.

Any time spent googling Jeff Decker, will immediately and overwhelmingly acquaint you with his fantastic work restoring and sculpting exquisite, badass vintage motorcycles. He’s also well known as the only person in the world authorized to sculpt historic Harley-Davidsons. He’s often—and very fittingly, I’d say—referred to as a Frederic Remington of motorcycle sculpture. As I got out of my truck and came up the walk, I’m certain he could already tell I knew nothing about motorcycles before I even reached the porch for a handshake.

But that was OK. This left us plenty else to talk about, and before too long I realized we had all of the following in common:
- A shared love for scrounging things from the dump.
- And for Cormac McCarthy, Tom Waits, Basil Wolverton, and Ed “Big Daddy” Roth.
- An unapologetic proclivity for going out into the back yard to piss, day or night.
- Both married to Kellys.
- And we’re way into birds, enough to both have our own stories about large, beautiful birds (not Thanksgiving turkeys) stored for a time in our freezers. (Jeff grew up surrounded by, among other things, hundreds of exotic parrots.)

It also didn’t take us long to get into the uncomfortable, sad, and mysterious subject of death. As Pablo Neruda puts it, the “little deaths” of individual lives; the big, monumental deaths and extinctions of entire species, nations, and civilizations; and what problems and questions these pose for collectors and artists like him. Though the image I was originally sent described the piece he was working on as a mounted white rhino, he soon clarified that it was actually a black rhino, which he’d found at an antique shop in pretty bad disrepair. There are several subspecies of black rhinos, most of them either completely extinct, or at some critical stage of endangered survival. Though one desperately wishes to be hopeful, these are among the too many creatures who have been hunted, chased, and displaced to the point of what we call “functional extinction.” The living bond between a life and its life place is broken and it becomes an object.

Although a certain kind of extinction is as old as life itself, the idea of extinction, our modern understanding of it, has only been around for about 200 years. Aristotle wrote ten books on natural history without extinction ever crossing his mind. Medieval, Renaissance, and Enlightenment Europe had never considered the idea a possibility either. Thomas Jefferson had come across giant fossils of New World lions, mammoths, and sloths, and fully expected Lewis and Clark to bring such things back from their expedition, alive and well on the American frontiers. Until the early 19th century it was widely believed that there was no place for extinction in the economy of creation. Imagine this world! Complete with the same fullness as on the morning of Genesis’ seventh day.

But we have these remnant bodies, these objects, many of them anyway. Forms of life now passed into history. What to make of them now, with their attendant beauty, and often shame? Jeff and I discussed our own experience of human lust and covetousness, greed and desire, both the bad and the good. His work with these sculptures (there are two of them) places obese human children (the “mammon twins,” as he affectionately refers to them) on the backs of magnificent creatures, borne in a pageant of elaborate plunder and excess. Gold coins and splendid instruments, narwhal tusks and oryx horns, penguin wings and shrunken head replicas.

These things raise questions. How do we, the most privileged generation of life on earth, reckon with our complicated history and our prospective future? Again, both the beauty and the shame of it. In what ways can our seeking after anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report, or praiseworthy (these finest pearls) condemn us to repeating history, and in what ways might they redeem us from it? And what limits might there be on such redemption? In composing these sculptures, Jeff recognized and included the ancient conceptual theme of Arcadia as useful in framing some of these questions in relation to death, horror, and desecration entering the garden.

eye of providence

cacti potted in foundry crucibles

Jeff explains lost wax, male and female parts, and where (scary, fat) babies come from.

the naming of parts: tzanzas

crucifixion & canvas Ute kayaks

Wiz the three-legged terrier (sweetheart)

Of course it was also hard to talk about some of this without also recognizing the absurdity of our current national moment. At the same time, our struggle with greed, lust, and reckless covetousness is a very old part of being human. But fortunately, so is kindness and generosity. I had gotten to Hippodrome Studio at noon, not really checking the time the whole while I was there. It wasn’t until we were wrapping up that I realized it was already three, and that Jeff had graciously given me, among other things, the better part of his afternoon. He then sent me across the street to Art City Trolley (his and his wife’s restaurant) where I was treated to the best burger I’d had in a long time.

I don’t always ever post pictures of my lunch on the internet, but when I do, it’s with gusto!

(A slightly revised version of this post has also been posted to the--much fancier--blog By Common Consent.)

Monday, May 01, 2017

People's Climate March - Salt Lake City, April 29

No somos uno.
Ni somos cien.
¡Cuentanos bien!

Artist Jorge Arellano on the right.

Logan High School students!

surveil this.