Project Series 28: Jared Pankin
Jared Pankin’s installation, Long in the Tooth (Snaggleteeth), reflects his provocative take on art, architecture, landscape, and nature. Over the last ten years, Pankin has mined a terrain of political and ecological urgency. His early work suggested apocalyptic clashes between natural and cultural forces in installations of meticulously crafted animals or plants engulfed in natural or man-made disasters. Subsequent work evolved into intimate natural history dioramas, followed by, most recently, sculptures that merged a lone hand-crafted tree to massive accumulations of chunks of wood. Shifting from representational imagery in the earlier work to more abstract in the recent, Pankin’s work stems from the tradition of assemblage, in which found or fabricated forms are combined to underscore a social commentary—in Pankin’s case, the fragility of the earth and the tenuous position of nature in today’s world.
Long in the Tooth (Snaggleteeth) distills these ideas into a dramatic new visual language that links his past adherence to sculptural and ecological issues to more recent investigations into the forms of construction. The new work references concepts in the building trades, such as utilizing modularization—the repetition of architectural forms to produce cost-efficient and streamlined structures—and sustainable materials—found or reclaimed wood and lumber. Reflecting a more humble approach to sculptural materials than the traditional modernist view of sculpture as a solid, unified object, Pankin employs a vigorously handmade aesthetic that begins with accumulations of reclaimed wood; continues in the intuitive process of cutting, splitting, gluing, and nailing the strips and chunks together; and culminates in the careful balance of form, mass, and scale.
For Pankin, the fundamental components of his work remain the relationship between landscape and nature, and between elemental materials, forms, and processes. Pankin’s work reflects an organic representation of landscape. Here, the wooden armature and layered accretions of wood hint at a landscape barren of plant life and could easily reference our rugged mountain ranges; or the pinnacles, spires, and arches of Utah’s canyon lands; or the jutting curves of coral reefs. Pankin refers to Long in the Tooth (Snaggleteeth) as an archipelago, a chain of islands—in this case jutting up from the ocean/gallery floor where the peaks and valleys create direction and volume in the primal sculptural form.
Jared Pankin’s exhibition is the twenty-eighth in the Pomona College Museum of Art’s Project Series, an ongoing program of focused exhibitions that brings to the Pomona College campus art that introduces new forms, techniques, or concepts.
The Pankin Archipelago
By Doug Harvey
I’ve been privileged to observe Jared Pankin’s evolution as an object-maker since the mid-1990s when we were both UCLA grad students—he in ceramics and I in painting. Many of the formal and conceptual strains at play in his current art were present then, but it seems unlikely that one could extrapolate his early work—baroquely perverse vessel-forms that took the hyper-aesthetic eclecticism of Adrian Saxe to satirical extremes (I seem to recall one elaborate, gorgeous assemblage of found gewgaws crowned by a petrified nugget of cat poop)—from the fragmented lumber landscape sculptures that make up his most recent body of work.
As Pankin grew more disengaged from the medium of clay (and the perennial disdain with which it’s treated by much of the art world), his work became more emphatically sculptural, most memorably in a series of aggressive works incorporating blown-out steel radial tires scavenged from the side of a freeway. One such piece, Quadruple Coupon Days (1994), mounted a pair of spiraling, jutting tire fragments on a metal shopping cart with a cinderblock and other urban industrial detritus, looking like a monster-size ram’s head converted into some kind of tank for the homeless. While formally elegant and engaged in the same kind of playful visual punning as Picasso’s bicycle-seat bull, it is impossible to overlook the Mad Max machismo and political urgency in Pankin’s work.
The penchant for mutant, ironically anthropomorphic animal presences hinted at here began to blossom when Pankin developed an interest in the visual vocabularies of natural history display and hobby taxidermy, which he began exploiting to create a variety of funny and unsettling tableaux. Tabletop dioramas recreated distorted scenes from the Bible using Barbie dolls and teddy bears while larger floor sculptures began incorporating simulacra of taxidermied wildlife, meticulously crafted from fake fur over professional blank animal forms. These life-like faux trophies might huddle amidst some urban rubble or generic woodland scenery or seem to be drifting ghost-like through the gallery wall, evoking a kind of false uncanny while triggering and inverting audience preconceptions regarding interspecies exploitation and the romance of nature.
Ah, the romance of nature! We’d probably have poisoned the planet 30 years ago without the seductive power of the wild frontier. Pankin is not immune. Of course, when you live and work in Los Angeles, you’re pretty much as far west as western civilization has marched, and are surrounded by evidence of it crashing back on itself in a chaotic postmodern self-referential mosh. Frontiers are few and far between. Nevertheless, the evidence of Pankin’s most recent evolutionary stage is a body of work that finds ways to risk the unknown, giving up much of the narrative and symbolic specificity that previous stages have depended upon (and his audience has come to expect) in favor of increasingly formal and process-oriented strategies.
The risk paid off. His recent show at Carl Berg Gallery (“Natural, Natural History” March 19 - April 16, 2005) was extremely well received. Seven works of landscape sculpture were individually subtitled Lucifer’s Left Nut, Satan’s Six Pack, Beelzebub’s Boney, Boney Backbone, and so on in the peculiar tradition of assigning “colorful” local landscape anomalies demonic status. Each was a conflation of rough-hewn, almost cubist foundations made from scores of literally chopped up bits of unfinished commercial lumber with meticulously fabricated miniature trees, messing wildly with scale and notions about truth-to-materials and representation.
Having developed from the infrastructure of the mock boulders and fiberglass outcroppings in Pankin’s earlier, more illusionistic work, Natural Natural History’s blonde-on-blonde explosions in a shingle factory marked a considerable leap of faith into aesthetics territory, taking the literal structure of a mechanism for deception (as in trompe l’oeil) as the material for a somewhat less determinate realism, and using that solid conceptual inversion as a jumping off point for expansive visual riffing.
Unburdened by their confession, the crackerjack clusters of splintered two-by-fours took on a life of their own, seeming to ulcerate from the trunks of the tightly rendered foliage for which they ostensibly function as pedestal, blossoming (or metastasizing) with exuberant improvisational elegance into the surrounding architecture and the viewer’s personal physical space. The dichotomy bears any number of interpretive tropes—abstract vs. representational, laboriously planned vs. intuitively made up as you go along, ego vs. the unconscious, culturally natural vs. naturally cultural.
Whatever they meant, it was clear that the lovely illusionistic trees were growing more and more vestigial—giving up increasing amounts of mass and psychic presence to their conjoined monster twins, as if passing through some interdimensional woodchipper, like Steve Buscemi in Fargo. It seemed inevitable that the embattled shrubbery would eventually be completely absorbed into the clouds of ax-split doweling. And so it has come to pass.
In Pankin’s latest body of work, created specifically for this exhibition, a half dozen or so free-standing wood structures rescale a string of islands to the size they would appear to, say, Godzilla. But their illusionism is anorexic, bordering on skeletal. Forms are roughed in, hinted at. Not a single pictorialist leaf despoils its unfinished purity. The lumber is arrayed sparely, with numerous gaps exposing the framing to which the relatively decorative flourishes adhere, like some abandoned deco movie house in whose walls some rich hermit is rumored to have hidden his fortune. The mottled pinkish tone of the shredded conifers gives the archipelago a disturbingly carnal subtext: a string of half-demolished carcasses, vulture-picked and sunbleached. A team of mules? The Donner Party? Chum?
I bring these more sinister associations into play only because the islands are so sweetly and assuredly beautiful, intricately composed in real time in three dimensions with a painterly eye for subtle modulations of value and color. With the trees fully digested, the previous antagonistic polarities seem to have been resolved, grounding the work in gravitational non-defiance and freeing up a reservoir of decorative shanty lyricism that permeates the rickety landscape.
Invoking the quirky modernist agglomerations of Louise Nevelson, HC Westermann, and “It’s a Small World” designer Mary Blair, they reward attention first by entertaining the eye. But they are stripped down rather than superficial. In reducing his vocabulary and trusting his improvisational instincts, Pankin seems to have resolved—or at least balanced—his own nature/culture schism. By chipping away at the non-essential facets of his practice, Pankin has progressed from depicting nature (through however convoluted a filter) toward acting in consort with it. And he hasn’t had to sacrifice any of the ambiguity, subtle socio-political criticism, or conceptual complexity of his previous work in the process. It’s hard to imagine where this path will lead him, but its safe to say, strangely enough, that he’s headed into uncharted territory.
Since graduating with an MFA in painting from UCLA in 1994, Doug Harvey has written extensively about the Los Angeles and International art scenes and other aspects of popular culture, primarily as the art critic for LA WEEKLY (www.laweekly.com). His writing has also appeared in Art issues, Art in America, The New York Times, and numerous other publications. He has written museum and gallery catalogue essays for Jim Shaw, Jeffrey Vallance, Tim Hawkinson, Georgeanne Deene, Margaret Keane, Big Daddy Roth, Lari Pittman, Thomas Kinkade, Reverend Ethan Acres, and many others. He lives and works in Los Angeles.