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Sixty Inches from Center Thu Aug 02 2012

Wooden Awesomeness for Weirdos & Perpetual Nerds: The Work of Michael Rea

By Danielle Jackson*


Looking at the idea of failure and drawing from pop culture inspirations, Michael Rea creates enormous wooden sculptures. To borrow from Jeriah Hildwine, he produces a "wooden wonderland for nerds." Remnants of your favorite movie or book are manipulated, altered, and combined in an attractively entertaining way. Last weekend, I caught up with Mike for a studio visit and interview. We spoke about his awesomeness, the progression of his work from painting to sculpture as well as how cinema and humor informs his practice. Mike's work can be seen in Odie Off at threewalls in collaboration with Kelly Kaczynski through this weekend. Additionally, he is curating an exhibition entitled, My idea of fun, at ebersmoore featuring a diverse group of artists such as: Chris Nacka, Zach Meyer, Ethan Gill, John Abbott, Kate Ruggeri, Matthew Hebert, and Kassie Teng Olsen. My idea of fun explores the comical and the subjectivity of the artists.

Danielle Jackson: To start, how would you describe yourself and your work to someone who was oblivious to your awesomeness [laughter]?

Michael Rea: [Laughter] I'm awesome! [Laughter] Most people are oblivious to my work. It seems to be the general consensus out there. They're oblivious to what I do [laughter]. There is a kind of wry sense of humor to the work, but at the same time it's coupled with this process--this meticulous, very specific kind of over-detailed expression of these contradictions and maybe the most stupid stuff for subject matter. I'll spend six months on a stupid joke seeing if that makes it better [laughter]. They're these large wooden sculptures that are hopefully a little funny and a little bit dark. They're probably over-built, which is usually just a process of me making lots of mistakes and having to add another layer to cover up where a seam didn't match. If you just sand something it gets better, just smooth it out, it makes it look like you wanted to do that [laughter].

I read that you actually started as an art educator and was doing primarily painting.

Yeah in undergrad, I emphasized in painting and I got an art education degree. I didn't know if I wanted to go the distance. I didn't know if I wanted to do the whole MFA thing right away, which I'm happy I didn't. I liked taking some time before I did my Masters. I taught for five years. After a while, I got into a pretty good school district a little closer to Chicago. I was teaching 1st -6th grade art at this school in the Northwest suburbs. That was awesome. I really liked working with kids a lot.

With the paintings, I was having the typical craftsmen issues a lot of painters have with shitty stretchers. I had a lot of honest conversations with professors and they were like, "You know the corner can't bow up on this unless it's suppose to." So I had a friend Paul Erschen in Chicago who invited me into his studio and he's like, "Oh yeah I have a table saw you can use. I'll show you the logistics." I started to become more and more interested in what was going on behind the paintings.

Screen Shot 2012-08-02 at 4.21.04 PM.png
So that's how you moved from painting to sculpture?

Yeah and because of art education you take every class. I'd taken everything from ceramics to fibers to sculpture. I'd also done stone carving and welding. Part of that too was this king painter ideology; I got swept up a little bit with the romance of that. I wanted to be a king painter. I found out that's bullshit. Sculpture's king. Painters always hate when I say that contemporary painting is sculpture. It's an object that hangs on the wall -- ever since someone like Frank Stella. That's kind of a limited -- narrow way of looking at things. I like to think of paintings as paintings too.

The sculptures really started with my rock n' roll pieces. I was able to transition that into a portfolio for grad school. I went to grad school down in Madison for three years and then transitioned to Milwaukee for a year at MIAD. I was really cooking with the sculptures at that point.

So how did you get to these gigantic pieces? Did you start off that way?

That was a part of the painter thing. Every painting professor, especially the ones I liked were always like, "Bigger! Make it bigger!" It's the audacity of something like that too. It was the freedom of having a studio and not teaching and working forty hours a week. I grinded it out for five years teaching and making art in the gaps. In graduate school, I taught freshman drawing two days a week so the rest of the time I was just like, "Oh yeah make a bunch of shit." I had the space and the time to do it. At the time, I just wanted to make big stuff. I fluctuate back and forth with it. There's more struggle involved with the bigger ones and the engineering is trickier with some of them. So I'll make a big one and then retreat back making some small quick stuff. I like the scale of it. A lot of them have a space for the body to go inside. They're environments or they're clothing. There's always an empty gap or pregnant pause where the audience can actually see themselves and in some instances allowing them to actually occupy that space. There's a tension or a gravity that allows them to physically engage with it or at least have this flirtation with it. That's nice. There's just this audacity and it goes back to humor. Bigger jokes, bigger laughs.

Do you feel like the smaller sculptures help you figure out ideas pertaining to the bigger sculptures?

Yeah they kind of work in tandem. Its details and going back to painting too. There are foreground, middle ground, and background issues. There are specific marks, intense marks in the foreground, and the background becomes bigger and fuzzier so when you're dealing with shapes and forms applying that intuitive perspective about how we perceive the world is kind of nice. There's less at stake with the smaller ones. You can go like, "Oh this really sucks." But I only spent like a day or two on them, so I can hide it or throw it in the garbage. With the big ones you're like, "Fuck!" There is a lot more at stake. The big ones are built very linear. I might have a concept, but I build it as I go. With the big ones I can't imagine it or have enough of an abstract understanding of how something that big will look in space or how it's going to feel. I have to put it in space and go, "Oh yeah that looks like a good height" or "That seems big enough." I have to figure it out as I go, but the whole time that's changing content or perspective on the piece. The small ones work like models because I don't do any models for the bigger ones. It's a way for me to practice tighter details.

Screen Shot 2012-08-02 at 4.21.15 PM.pngSo your process is more intuitive as opposed to being carefully planned out from start to finish.

Yeah sometimes logistically they're planned out. This one [Mr. Hands] has got some engineering issues because it's going to have two big arms that lean forward and perhaps hold human weight in it. I do a little sketching out and note-taking as I go. I look at the references too. This one [Mr. Hands] is based on the movie The Exorcist and this documentary called Zoo.

That documentary is so creepy. [Laughter]

[Laughter] Exactly, it's almost starting at the worst place. It's kind of like emptying all the gas out of the airplane. Let's see what happens. Let's see if you can pull this thing out of there. It's a piece about exorcism and bestiality. This is career ender shit, but it could also be pretty funny and awesome [laughter] if it works. Ta da! Ugh! Maybe it'll make someone cringe [laughter]. Just think if you could still make something seductive with that kind of material or engaging or interesting. I watched Zoo right after it came out, and I was like, "What the fuck did I watch?" I'm compelled to it though. There's something kind of beautiful about the fact that the internet allowed such a unique group of individuals to find each other. It's also interesting that bestiality is legal in Seattle. We're talking about bestially; this interview is going to be fucking awesome! [Laughter] The funny thing is that the documentary doesn't actually show you anything; it's all implied.

Where else do you take inspiration from?

A lot of it's like pop culture. I watch tons of film basically. I'm consistency streaming something on Netflix. I have a pretty steady diet of two or three movies a day if I can sneak them in. Specifically, I watch science fiction and horror. I watch romantic comedies and documentaries--kind of all of it. I'm using that as a gauge of what society wants because it's so marketed. I've been dragging through two books. I'm reading a biography on Matisse right now and this other book called Concrete Comedy, which is about comedy and art.
Hanging out in Chicago is important too. Going out and doing stuff. I collaborated with this artist Geoffrey Todd Smith on this project called Sharks, Dicks, and Drugs. That came out of going out and having drinks at the Gold Star. Other artists would come have a couple of drinks and make a couple of drawings. Once again let's take a stupid idea and see how far you can push it. Talking to other artists' is inspirational as well.

Do you have any favorite movies or favorite directors or producers?

I like the movie The Right Stuff. I like some of the lines like, "Who's the best pilot you ever saw? You're looking at him." I think artists need a little of that swagger too. There needs to be a little esteem involved. I love Wes Anderson and Quentin Tarantino. That Death Proof movie is fucking awesome! It's so good! [Laughter]Tarantino and Wes Anderson don't get stuck in a pattern. It's always very new and original. I watch trailers more than anything. Rob Zombie I've always been on the fence when he gets the violence too close to the nudity, which I think is maybe a little reckless with mass audiences. It's a little too sexy violent.

Screen Shot 2012-08-02 at 4.21.29 PM.pngIn your artist statement you mentioned that "Your work offers a sense of what could be and what could never be simultaneously." Can you elaborate on this?

It's this sense of failure that I like to indulge in [laughter]. I'm looking at failure and bringing it in and glorifying it to a certain extent. That's kind of where the materiality of using the wood is--the fact that it contradicts the implied function and the narrative or the symbolism of the piece. Someone wanted to interview me for a steam punk thing and I'm like, "I'll do it, but I have to warn you, I don't use any of that language." Steam punk is suppose to work even though it has kind of a flawed or backwards approach to it, whereas my pieces are suppose to not work. There's supposed to be this inability or its flaccid or something of that nature. If you're building violent stuff like guns and things [going back to Rob Zombie] there has to be something responsible about that. You can't be too indulgent. There's not much interesting about that, but if you deflate it then the materials and the rendering of the objects become an interesting place to make something or say something.

Any advice for emerging artists?

The usual stuff. Try to see as many shows as you possibly can. You got to make sure you're visible. You have to start meeting these people. Go to galleries on Saturdays as opposed to openings. Maybe you can strike up a little banter. Make as much as you can. Don't get caught up in good or bad. You need a good healthy studio practice. Just make a bunch of stuff and keep making it. Keep your chin up and try to keep a little bit of ego intact and you should be ok. Read, watch stuff, and talk to people.

Odie Off: Mike Rea and Kelly Kaczynski
On view June 29 -August 4 2012
119 N. Peoria

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*This article was originally published on Sixty Inches from Center on June 25. It is featured on Gapers Block as part of a series of content exchanges with them.

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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »


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