Poetic Prompts That Trigger
2010 Hallie Ford Fellow David Eckard in conversation with Cassandra Coblentz
David Eckard, a recipient of the prestigious Hallie Ford Fellowship in Visual Arts, is one of nine artists featured in “We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live” at Museum of Contemporary Craft. The text below is an excerpt from a longer interview. You can read more about Eckard, about the Hallie Ford Fellowship, and about the We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live exhibition, as well as listen to the full-length interview between Eckard and curator Cassandra Coblentz, at Museum of Contemporary Craft.
CASSANDRA COBLENTZ: What role does storytelling or narrative play in your work?
DAVID ECKARD: The biggest element of narrative lies in the objects I fabricate. The viewer has to search for a reason or a “necessity” for these things. You come to an object and make a relationship to your body. You implicate yourself in it. “Oh, this sits here. This fits here. This touches me here.” The person steps back through his or her own personal history searching for reasons or a need to actualize the piece. People may find the pieces darkly funny, horrific, or blatantly sexual depending on what they bring to the exchange. A lot of what’s still embedded in the work is my own narrative about my physicality, my sexuality, the hesitations and limitations of the body. I’m continually exploring how those narratives are manifested in my objects, objects that potentially limit facility, reduce prowess, or end up holding a simple gesture in space, making it a static moment.
CC: I wouldn’t say they’re personified, but there’s something psychological that you’re able to evoke through the materials themselves. Would you agree?
DE: I hope so, yes. The materials are so blunt, they’re so basic. They’re steel, wood, leather, fabric, and a palette that’s accessible in that it’s slightly recognizable, slightly institutional. But I think anything that triggers the viewer to acknowledge an embodied presence in the world is also linked to a physical stance, a psychological stance, and an emotional stance. They can all be wrapped up in a piece, and this might go to the question about craft, if it convinces.
There are multiple fictions embedded in the sculpture, and they allude to many other things in addition to being a crafted piece of artwork. It’s the tool, it’s the prosthetic, it’s the weapon.
CC: And that open-endedness is crucial.
DE: Yes, I danced around for the longest time not being true to what these things were in relation to my own story and to my own sense of self because I didn’t want them to become confessional bits of therapy. When I started doing more performative work, there was an immediate implication of myself in both owning the work and owning the expressions attached. I was still skirting around honesty or legitimacy or sincerity. I was present as a body but at times the body’s role was basically simple mass or fulcrum point or a point of evidenced gravity.
CC: So in a sense by putting yourself into the work, you were making it more generally relatable rather than something really specific.
CC: Can you talk about the idiosyncratic versus the universal, or the personal versus a grand narrative?
DE: I have friends who have known my work forever, and they’ll spin grand narratives. For me, it’s initially very small and specific. . . drawings about a crush I had on a trainer at the gym, for example. I had an uncle with two artificial legs; the memory of his presence prompted a series of work. I hope that my own singular moments can resonate with others. I’m not so alien that my expressions, desire, regrets—all these lived things—are so different than anybody else’s.
CC: It’s kind of humble.
DE: I’ve never been accused of humility or humbleness. [laughs] Well, I think so.
CC: Essentially, you’re saying that you don’t need to presume that your experience is so unique that nobody else shares it.
DE: It’s funny because when I was exhibiting work earlier, I was quickly pigeonholed.
DE: When I was coming out, I was doing work that was a lot more aggressive and sexual, it was about being hesitant and expressive with my body. It was at the onset of the AIDS epidemic, and I noticed I became the curator’s go-to “queer farm boy” and it became so limited, so quota-filling. At a certain moment I stopped being involved in a lot of queer identity shows in the late 1980s and early 1990s because it seemed to be self-ghettoizing. Not every waking moment of my day deals with issues of desire. It is interesting for me to see how that shadow of identity politics, fortunately or unfortunately, continues to color the work.
CC: In that sense, are you optimistic about the range of topics you can address? Does the notion of skepticism in opposition to optimism strike a chord with you, relative to what you were just saying?
DE: It does. I didn’t know which order to put the terms in, either skepticism tinged with optimism or the other way around, but I think at the end of the day there’s optimism. There’s optimism in being able to reveal evidence of how I’ve expressed myself living in the world. I’m building a record of doing and living, so I think that’s optimistic, but it’s also skeptical because a lot of what I do turns critical of other larger, more inclusive situations. So yes, if I’m dealing with issues of fragility and lack of skills or lack of strength or committing myself to these exhaustive, endurance-based performances, it ends up being hopefully inclusive.
CC: There is an element of futility, too.
DE: Oh yes, and absurdity. The inferred function in the objects is pointless or absurd, and I think that’s a way of being skeptical without being too critical— saying that it’s a game we’re all playing, right? At the end of the day, what did we accomplish or what have we really achieved? Regardless… let’s do it again. If the sun comes up tomorrow, let’s make some more. And I think when people don’t find my work somewhat funny, they’ve missed a large part of its intention. There’s no pragmatic reason for these things to be anything but poetic prompts that trigger us to realize that we’re all doing the same dance: stumbling, stepping, repeating.
CC: One of the things that I really appreciate about your work is the way it is theatrical but in a very carefully constructed, calculated way that plays with that notion of absurdity and fantasy.
DE: And I think it’s very important that that’s apparent. It’s not an arrogant, deceptive attempt to pull the wool over somebody’s eyes but a way of offering up the notion of criticality, belief, faith, and delusion. How do we believe? How are we convinced to believe? How much do we trust our bodies and our sense? Yes, the idea of what’s right on the edge of that curtain at the moment of reveal. These things become really important because we do suspend a certain amount of disbelief or belief to engage in a visual world, an information world, and it’s very important for me to continue to explore this.
CC: Which gets at the question of thinking about the natural and the artificial: How do you challenge a viewer’s perception of what’s real and what’s not?
DE: Through sleight of hand, ideas of artifice and theatricality, the illusion and passivity behind that.
CC: I think that becomes even more interesting when combined with the other more abstract elements of your work.
DE: Yes, the realness or the convincing quality of the work comes from a conviction to the craft. Even with my 2-D work you may have no idea what is represented, but it sits in a “real” space. Objects have a certain physical ease because you have to contend with them in real space, but with 2-D work you suspend, break that planar barrier, and let yourself conceptually dip into what’s potentially there. Even the compositional strategies within the pieces where things are very abruptly broken or sliced out tease a certain ambiguity. They end up as fragments, so again there’s the prompt to complete it. Here’s this fragment of an image, here’s a slice of something. Is it micro, is it macro? I’m not sure, so hopefully the viewer then has to delineate the parameters and fill in the gaps.
I think that’s why I’m very interested in one current piece I’m working on. It’s a diptych with a split. The split is such an interesting quirky edit. It’s a comma or pause or truncated thing. The image is still trying to maintain its legitimacy or its wholeness in spite of my own choice to compositionally fracture it. So, again, it’s an odd play between present, tease back, give you a bit more, then deny resolution. Within the 2-D work, there are little moments of incredibly rendered, convincing things that butt right up against a pure graphic panel of color. So, within whatever the image, whatever the narrative or trigger that the images build within the images themselves, it’s also a thesaurus of rendering techniques or image building strategies. There’ll be a schematic, there’ll be a form, there’ll be shadow, there’ll be a blank, there’ll be a graphic all jumbled together. So hopefully, as you’re navigating the image, you’re also seeing how I attempted to or have made the image. My hand, my process, gets revealed there in an interesting way.
CC: Is it important to you that the hand of the artist be present for the viewer?
DE: Yes. There are not a lot of expressive gestural moments, but I think in how far I choose to render or complete or finish certain elements opens up the vocabulary of rendering or of actualizing imagery within itself.
DAVID ECKARD (b. 1964, Spirit Lake, IA) is a visual artist working across disciplines and dimensions, incorporating painting, sculpture, video, and performance in his practice. Eckard’s sculptural work resonates with eerie textures of the material past, and his performances engage artist, object, and gesture in a choreographed arrangement that interweaves theatricality and absurdity with the uncanny. Eckard received a BFA degree in sculpture from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1988 and is Associate Professor and Chair of the Sculpture Department at Pacific Northwest College of Art. He has exhibited nationally and internationally, and his artwork has been featured in publications including Flash Art, Art in America, ARTnews, Sculpture, and The New York Times. Eckard has received numerous grants and awards, notably, the Bonnie Bronson Fellowship in 2010.
CASSANDRA COBLENTZ is an independent curator whose practice is distinguished by innovative approaches to engaging audiences and working with artists to produce new work. Most recently, Coblentz was the Associate Curator at Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art (SMoCA), where she organized a number of exhibitions including solo retrospectives of Julianne Swartz, Kirsten Everberg, Pae White, and Lyle Ashton Harris. At SMoCA, she initiated the Architecture+ Art program that explores the boundaries between architecture and art through the production of large-scale, site-specific commissions. Additional professional experience includes appointments with the UCLA Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, the DIA Center for the Arts, New York, and the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles. Coblentz received her BA in Art History and English from Cornell University and her MA from the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College.