‘Ceramix’

Sumnik’s blend of nature, industry is at New BLK Gallery On and Off the Wall

There’s always been some ambiguity in the work of Iggy Sumnik, ceramicist and mixed media artist. A former assistant in the Jun Kaneko Studio in Omaha, Sumnik broke out of the mold in 2008 in a two-man show at RNG Gallery, then soloed in January of 2009 at Jackson Artworks. In both shows the artist explored the tenuous relationship of the industrial and natural world, or what he described as “the human connection to nature.” Sumnik did this with a curious amalgam of metal, paint and ceramic that resulted in such signature oddities as “Jelly Beans,” “Chunk Stacks,” “Hearts” and a potpourri of morphed natural and manmade objects that only vaguely resembled their labels, “Gas Pump,” “Hydrant” and “Traffic Light.” At the time this critic described his more animated, anthropomorphic figurative hybrids as Tim Burton influenced. Now, in his new solo show at the BLK Gallery through Nov. 24, Sumnik hasn’t abandoned his earlier influences or themes, but the work is beginning to evolve. The first clue is in the show’s title, On and Off the Wall, which describes the exhibit’s installation and its overall tone and POV. The New BLK show includes his familiar chunks, stacks, beans and other totemic objects, and features newer “Pipe Blossoms,” “Pipe Wraps,” “Cloud Forms,” “Sewer Caps” and “Wall Boxes” among others, 84 pieces in all. It’s an overwhelming array perhaps in search of an edit, but the exhibit never feels cluttered, thanks to variety and visual motifs. The work is indeed on and off the wall, but nevertheless a nice fit for the gallery’s industrial, unvarnished, urban vibe with its exposed mechanicals, beams, wall fixtures and scarred floors. The ambiance serves the artist. It doesn’t look or feel polished or slick. It looks lived and worked in. After awhile, at least for this show, the columns of bare metal and wood, bare light bulbs and whitewashed windowpanes begin to look like part of the show. Even the large floor scuffs in front of the art resemble spotlights that put both the work and viewer on display. Just how the viewer and art connect in this exhibit concerns Sumnik, but this time around he admits to being more conceptual. “The core idea isn’t to direct a viewer but to stimulate a certain ambiguity,” he says of On and Off the Wall with perhaps a particular emphasis on the latter. Certain socio-environmental themes persist, but like some of the pieces, the issues are more complex and amorphous. Many pieces, such as the painted ceramic “Jelly Beans,” “Wall Puzzle” and “Wall Paintings” suggest a harmony among industrial design and natural elements. Other objects, especially his “Pipe Wraps” and three large “Totems,” “Pipe Blossoms” and “Cactus” infer the opposite, or at least a duplicity though composed of similar matter. It’s as if to say that at times nature and humans cannot only co-exist, they must. Other work implies a more downbeat intervention with serious cultural, environmental and evolutionary consequences. Whatever the tone or interpretation, what unites each work is Sumnik’s love of abstract, geometric design, an organic imagination and use of multiples that reflect nature as well as industry. “I like repetitions because it allows you to improve each piece in a series, to gauge the progress and watch the evolution,” he says. For instance, his seven “Jelly Beans” mimic mass commercial production, but as each boasts its own surface design, it’s a lesson drawn from nature that manmade products need not be stamped out. More to the point are Sumnik’s 17 individually designed “Sewer Caps” reminding us that no matter how careful the breeding or uniform the bouquet, no two red roses are exactly alike. Even greater cautionary tales are his totemic figures including the aptly named statuesque “Evolution Totem” which stands guard in the gallery entrance. An imposing sculpture, like his other “Totems,” it’s composed of layers of clay and metal beautifully textured with pipe and wall socket fragments and archaic markings. These tall iconic totems are signs of the times, both paean to the coexistence of nature and industry and portent of evolutionary catastrophe. At first glance, they look as elegant and organic as the “Stacked Totemic Forms” of local ceramic artist Liz Vercruysse. Look again and they reference an experiment gone awry as in David Cronenberg’s version of the horror film, The Fly. Are Sumnik’s “creatures” a symbol of science and technology working together with Mother Nature or are they mutant hybrids worse than the problems they pretend to solve? Equally duplicitous are the several “Pipe Wraps” that resemble coiled reptiles, especially #’s 23 and 24 with their ringed and herringboned patterns that mimic a rattler and coral snake. Less ambiguous and more positive is one of the show’s most impressive pieces called simply “Cactus.” It is a formidable looking, pale green saguaro. This one-armed wonder sports a pipe-fitting over a missing “right arm,” an indication of Sumnik’s belief in industrial solutions to benefit the environment. Then you notice that the cactus has sprung up through its base of asphalt, not unlike all the bobbing and weaving “Pipe Blossoms” growing up through “concrete and blacktop” like weeds through cement. Overall, it not only represents his belief in the resilience of nature in a paved-over society, but how abandoned infrastructure has gone back to nature, which in turn serves as a potential incubator for the next commercial endeavor. On a lighter note, there are Sumnik’s billowing cloud assemblages, which had viewers at the opening seeing both Buddha and Jabba the Hut in the mix. It is only natural to see things in cloud formations whether animal, vegetable or missile launchings. It seems we — critics included — have to figure things out before they have merit. A problem occurs in dealing with affairs of art because by adding meaning, we may also be diminishing the work. To Sumnik’s credit, his imaginative blend of nature and industry may seem equivocal and paradoxical, but his art has a life of its own. It welcomes interpretation, simultaneously taking the measure of the viewer while perhaps coming to a similar conclusion. On and Off the Wall continues through Nov. 24 at the New BLK Gallery, 1213 Jones St. For details, go to thenewblk.com

posted at 08:42 pm
on Wednesday, November 17th, 2010

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