Monday, October 5, 2009

Say hello to Leo Berk

Quecreek Mine, 2009 (image by Mark Woods)

Conceptually, you've been working on this show for Lawrimore Project for a long time now. However, it’s only during the final month or so that you started making the actual art. Does most of your work have such a long gestation period?

I’ve been working on this show for about 2 years. I started by testing out ways of modeling caves in the computer and making drawings as studies. While developing the aesthetic of these drawings, I was researching other underground spaces and thinking about how I was going to frame the ideas and images. My style has always been to explore new ideas, techniques, processes, and imagery until I have them worked out and then spend the last two to three months feverishly fabricating the work. My studio mate of ten years was initially exasperated by this approach, but now reminds me when I start to get panicky that I do this every show and it always works out. When I’m actually fabricating the art, I find it works best for me if I work in a flurry of activity. I enjoy both the researching and the fabrication, but they’re very different activities for me. I’m always hesitant and a little sad to switch from one to the other as I go from project to project, but once I do switch I get absorbed into the task.

Spiderhole, 2009 (image via Mark Woods)

This show consists of four sculptural pieces. In the order you made them (Rattling House first, then Quecreek Mine, followed by Tora Bora, ending with Spider Hole), the pieces get progressively closer to actual size. Is there a message by ending with an object that's full scale?

The last piece I’m making for my show is a full-scale model based on a published rendering of Saddam Hussein’s spider hole. I had the idea to make a piece about the spider hole early on, but couldn’t figure out how to make it an interesting sculpture. Unlike the rest of the work, it’s a very simple form, and I think that I was unable to see its full potential until I modeled it in the computer. Now I love the piece for its simplicity. It’s a reduction of all the other works.

River of Blood (image via Mark Woods)

In addition to your gallery work, you’re probably equally known for your commission-based work. How do they differ?

For the last several years, I’ve been working on large-scale commissions alongside my studio work. Before this, I had done a number of small commissions for private clients so in some ways it’s not that new, but the scale has definitely required some adjusting. I’ve found doing the commissions to be really challenging and satisfying. It’s very different from doing studio work. Eventually, I feel like I’ll be able to find a perfect balance of doing commissions and studio work. Not being financially dependent upon gallery sales has really freed up my approach to studio work. Commissions are great because they guarantee income, allow experimentation with expensive materials, warrant the cost of trying new techniques and methods, don’t require storing the work after exhibition, provide the opportunity to stretch ideas into new territory, get installed for long term, present the chance to work large scale, and offer exposure to a broad range of people. Studio work allows me to develop ideas more gradually, work in delicate materials, know that the work will be handled carefully, etc. There’s a certain kind of research that happens in each work that is able to feed the other. In terms of a preference, I prefer the last three weeks of any kind of project when I’m completely engrossed and I’m seeing my ideas come to fruition. I suppose if I were making a “living wage” from my studio practice, I would do fewer commissions, but that’s not the reality in this town and certainly not for me.

Tora Bora, 2009

This show consists entirely of subterranean spaces. How did the interest in caves begin?

On 9/11/2001, I was in a remote jungle of Guatemala on a trip organized by a friend who lives there. We spent the day driving and got to our “hotel” late at night. When the owner realized we hadn’t heard the news of the plane crashes, he set up his personal television in our room so that we could watch the images over and over again with Spanish newscasters describing the events. With the airports shut down, the world seeming under attack, we drove back into the jungle for what my friend told us would be an archeologically interesting cave. After hiking on foot, bribing the security guards, and descending over a kilometer into this amazing cave called Naj Tunich, my headlamp was shining on beautiful ancient cave paintings at the site the Mayans believed to be the entrance to the underworld. I was completely isolated from the world above and the shift in our society that was just beginning. In that moment, I had everything I needed to begin an entire body of work, but I didn’t realize it until 2007 when I started thinking that my experience in the cave could be a direct reference for my work. There’s an excellent book published about the cave with a detailed map. As soon as I got the book from the library, I knew what I would be making.

Quecreek Mine (drawing), 2009 (image via Mark Woods)

I remember once in a conversation you said you are defined by a 'sense of discovery'. Can you explain how that drives your work?

Last time we talked, I said that my work was fed by a sense of discovery, but I think I need to amend that since giving it more thought. My current thinking is that all artists are defined by a sense of discovery, but there is a spectrum to the kind of discovery artists seek. My analogy would be going for a hike in the woods. There are some people who can hike the same trail over and over again. They’re satisfied by more subtle discoveries: seasonal changes, weather, animal sittings, wildflowers, etc. And then there are people who want to hike a different trail every outing. They’re satisfied by grander discoveries—having everything be new. Obviously, both are just as good. With how I like to hike and how I like to make art, I lean toward grander discoveries. My work has gone through many changes in materials and ideas, and I’m comfortable with that. I can see the threads that connect everything and feel like the broader the investigation the stronger those threads are defined.

Ford House by Bruce Goth (image via PrairieMod)*

You used to live in a Bruce Goth house and credit that experience as setting you on the path of becoming an artist. In what ways do you think it influenced you?

Bruce Goff’s Ruth Ford house is more sculpture than dwelling. Growing up in that house has been the single most influential experience shaping my aesthetic and conceptual concerns. Every material and form Goff used to construct it was a lesson in sculpture, from the giant chunks of coal and glass cullet to the rope-lined ceilings and B-29 bomber domes. Thinking and talking about that house is always sure to choke me up a little bit because it’s so ridiculously good. Living in it never became mundane. I wish I could give my daughter that experience. But then, she’d have to grow up in the Chicago suburbs; so there is a downside.

Rattling House, 2008 (front) and Dark House, 2008
(image via Mark Woods)

I've heard the piece Rattling House referred to as a "sexy object". Your work is full of curves, epoxy and inviting forms. How would you describe your work?

I’ve heard that reference made as well. Formally, I think that my work is tightly crafted, abstracted images and objects. My work has always had an architectural reference, and in stride with that it has always been “well made”--which I feel is almost a liability in contemporary art now. I feel like there’s a deep-rooted suspicion of a well-crafted object as if craft is a cover for a lack of conceptual depth. Of course it’s possible to have both. The visual references for my work have a tightly crafted aesthetic that works as a tool for selling their ideas, and perhaps I’m attempting to do the same.

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