Sculpture in Nature – Michael Dennis
An interview with John Grande
Sculptor Michael Dennis is internationally renowned for towering ancestral human figures of cedar. Both abstract and semi-representational, the eight-to-ten foot sculptures have a formidable presence. At a time in history when the diminishing wealth of our forests — particularly old growth — has motivated ecological and artistic movements aimed at preservation, Dennis’ use of natural, salvaged materials for almost three decades is particularly resonant.
Dennis searches for the natural forms within enormous pieces of cedar wood retrieved from logging sites on the west coast of Vancouver Island. From each log he carefully summons a human shape and presence. Dennis describes his new work as “representations of self” and “minimal suggestions of the humanity which we share”. Over time, his sculptures have become more abstract as he strives to balance representation and symbolism in his ongoing search for ancestral metaphors.
Michael Dennis graduated from Portland, Oregon’s prestigious Reed College. In 1967, he obtained a PhD from Stanford University. During the 1970s, he studied neurophysiology and was a professor of medicine at Harvard and the University of California, San Francisco. Dennis moved to Denman Island during the 1980s, where he built his house in part with found materials. His exhibits and installations have been reviewed by the New York Times, Baltimore Sun, In Focus Magazine and, several times, by the Vancouver Sun. His work is in numerous prominent collections and has been installed at major universities in Canada the United States, and England. Renowned landscape archtect Cornelia Hahn Oberlander has praised Dennis integrative sculpture stating “Many years ago I discovered Michael Dennis’ hauntingly beautiful sculptures of charred wood. His present work is a further refinement with dreamlike characters emerging from found wooden pieces. These sculptures tell us of his strong connection to the forest environment of British Columbia and its ecology. As a Landscape Architect I can well visualize discovering a grouping of these beautiful figures in the out of doors or indoor settings.”
JG: We are continuously witnessing these shows of art with a conceptual bias. The whole history of art is being written vis-И-vis Marcel Duchamp and yet we are facing this manufacturing and industrial crisis, the whole post-industrial world is being challenged. No one has really thought that redefining art may be essential as well.
MD: Well in fact it almost needs to be constantly redefining itself in order to make what’s new interesting. It is not just objects anymore.
JG: My point of view might be the art reflects the way we structure our economy vis-И-vis nature. Abstract art is an abstraction as economy is an abstraction out of nature and the ecosystem.
MD: In my own practice which is going out into the forest where the commercial logging companies have just finished and then I comb through for the cedar pieces that are of interest to me. First of all it is amazing what is just lying there. The volume of wood that is available just lying there. They only want what is big and straight. The reason for bringing it up is that often even though it is a tree that has been fallen, it is still beautiful just as it is. It is a kind of vanity on my part, that I am going to pick it up, and bring it home, put all this labour into it and then carve it up to make it something precious.
JG: The value thing. One of the first urban ecology sculptors Alan Sonfist who made Time Landscape in New York City made a bronze casting from a twig and then placed the real twig next to the cast piece. He would display then together in a gallery, and value the natural twig higher than the bronze cast.
MD: Once it has been cast then the original becomes more valuable just because you have made a bronze copy. A kind of weird and distorted value system.
JG: How did you begin making sculpture?
MD: We are sitting in it. Immediately after I quit my academic job in science and moved to Denman Island, the first thing I needed to do was to build a house. At that point, I had no notion of doing anything visual. All my training had been in science; my family home there was nothing artistic about it so I had had no exposure to it. I would swear that for genetic reasons and I could not do it. I move here and build a house, and it turned out to be a nice looking creation. People would say where did that come from? It was only then that I let on the possibility of doing something visual. Why do I say I can’t when I haven’t even tried?
JG: So out of architecture and building you could move in the direction of art. The art world has always had tendencies towards sustainability, and recycling,, even living art. Some pioneers like Nils-Udo in Germany, Richard Long, Hundertwasser, and David Nash who made the living Ash Dome Millennium sculpture have been directed that way for decades. What has propelled the art world forward, I think, is actually sustainable architecture and landscape architecture. The language we see in the work of many eco-sensitive artists including yourself, is the outgrowth of an attitude towards nature and materials – accessibility and not store bought – but part of the natural history we are living within. When you work on a piece, you talk of the arrogance of working on it. How do you decide how much you touch and alter when you are going to work it?
MD: That’s a tricky situation. I have tried some sculptures where I have done almost nothing except bring it home and stand it up, but for me that doesn’t work. I do some modification. I am always trying to maintain something of the original tree. When you stand before it not only do you see the form that I am trying to impose but hopefully there is also a tree there.
JG: Do you allude to animal or natural forms?
MD: Sometimes I set out with a particular form in mind, and I go out and look for it. I have a whole spare parts department, a wood pile or sources where I can find the forms I am looking for. Getting back to your discussion of architecture, one of the strongly formative experiences for me was when I was studying and teaching about the nervous system in science, I was invited to a conference put on by a wealthy industrialist in Kyoto, Japan where they were bringing the best young North American and Japanese neuro-biologists together. His idea, which was a really good one, was get the best young people together and they will know each other for when they are the leaders in the field. In Kyoto I was very impressed by the most traditional architecture, where they intentionally maintain the natural lines of the tree so it is not just square wood. Pieces of wood have an element of the tree showing, I was very inspired by that. You can see the natural Wang of the tree in my house, I have basically cut a six by six of a fir tree, and where the corners would be is the natural outside edge of the tree. It makes the corners less harsh I think. That Japanese influence also carries certainly into my sculpture using the natural lines of wood.
JG: Does the scale of the trees in British Columbia play a role in the scale you chose to work the figures in your sculpture?
MD: Yes. It is inevitable. As I said when I go into the forest where the logging companies have come and gone, the size of some of those tree stumps are way too large for me to handle.
JG: It must be simultaneously depressing or devastating to see what has happened in these forests, and then a rebirth through the wood sculpting and working it. A memory of a tree perhaps?
MD: For me it is kind of a memory of my own ancestors somehow. I am striving to produce the most elemental forms, reducing them to the bare minimum, reducing them to the minimum of what could represent a figure. I am always skirting on this edge between figuration and complete abstraction but it is not even abstraction, more a natural line.
JG: I believe there is this tendency throughout history towards animation and the cartoon even back to the most ancient of times. It could be one of the keys to art, this animation of form, and reduction.
MD: We are very visual animals. The visual is one of our most primary senses. When we see a form over a hill off in the distance, we immediately check to see if it is a humanoid or something else. In a sense it is only a vertical line.
JG: When you look at the Lascaux Cave painting, a cartoon by Michelangelo, or a Goya of a monster eating a human, they are all forms of animation straight through to children’s animation in our times. I am thinking of this collectivity of red painted twisting sculptural forms, part human and part natural, like tree bodies in space. They are in the field near your studio here on Denman.
MD: Maybe something in the animation is a reminder that we are alive. Maybe we need it for ourselves too, to identify with the animation.
JG: In other words there is a dialogue going on between the viewer and the sculptor, an open dialogue and that includes living nature. That is quite different from everything that came after Brancusi, for though his forms referenced primitivism and alluded to natural form beautifully, the language of his sculpture was largely closed to the environment and surrounds.
MD: When you mention the scale of my work and the influence of the environment, another thing for me is to use available materials in my environment, rather than going to buy materials in an art store.
JG: So you are recycling materials and giving them a new life. It gives a feeling of empowerment isn’t it?
MD: Of course. Wood, and stone, auto wreckage and books, all these are universal media that I use, and available materials. Originally I tried to make human forms out of these books that I glued together vertically. I tried to make these vaguely humanoid forms out of books, which are not so easy to join. They basically came out like towers, with a small one at the top to make a head. This was around 2000, when I made them. They don’t actually stand straight, they curve. So I had these around in my studio and I am painting them and whatever in 2001, when the Twin Towers came down in New York, and suddenly they had an altogether new valence. So they become conceptual art, without me even having a concept. The concept arrived later.
JG: The car parts sculptures where you recycle crushed metal and wrap them around trees or place them on top of a trunk. These are strangely conjoined with wood, incredible juxtaposition of natural and industrial and these materials have a history. They end up quite animated.
MD: Two things about that. When we are gone, this is what will remain. Cars and dead wood. Metal from dead cars.
JG: Future world…
MD: The sculptures with the crushed metal heads kind of reference Roman sculptures. When I was a kid, my Dad made me go to the museum. It was fun going to see the dioramas and stuffed animals but Greece and Rome, the classic sculptures, let me out of here. For me those are referencing the heroes. The dead guy on top of the pedestal.
JG: And now we are putting dead cars on top of pedestals. How timely what with GM and the auto crisis. There is a new relevance to the material language you have been using – the discarded cedar from clear-cuts and discarded auto parts.
MD: So when Rauschenberg is given credence as understanding the end of painting by getting a dead goat out on Broadway. He picks it up and puts a tire over its head, but he is just doing it. He has no idea of history, or the future.
JG: So the way we are forming the history of art is largely circumspect and relative. Artists are just doing what they are doing… and the way history of art, or post-Art is being formed is largely circumspect. It could be this or it could be that.
MD: Another similar uncertainty of what is going on in my mind or any artist’s mind is when I make a work and they want to put it in a public place, I have to make up a story. The work is long done and then I make up a story. I have to discover the meaning afterwards. We are certainly taking in a lot more information then reaches us on the conscious level.
JG: Your King and Queen at the Royal Botanical Gardens in Burlington, Ontario, are like tree spirits communicating between each other as forms in space, and to us. In most ancient cultures the tree was defined as essential and could be worshipped. Your small forms on Saltspring Island at Celia Duthie’s are animated in a similar way.
MD: With respect to the question of scale it is hard to work on a small scale. It’s like a dance and when your dance partner is small scale it is much harder. When I first set out and tried various media, it turned out for me, that three-dimensional works are much easier for me to work than two-dimensional painting.
JG: You work with your body in direct response to the tree form. It’s a struggle.
MD: I have a physical approach to the world. Painting is an abstract rectangle on a wall, but the actual physical relationship is a pretty distant one. You put this paint on a plane. Sculpture is an object in space.
JG: Sculpture responds to, and is part of a living environment.. We move around it, and we can touch it. For your latest solo show at Diane Ferris Gallery in Vancouver recently, what was the public response to your work?
MD: I think people like it. There is that courtyard in front of the gallery and it is very visible to people passing by. One time there was this street person who said, “ I like to come at night and to sit with them.” So if it can be accessible for someone like that, and another woman mentioned coming for lunch beside the sculptures.
JG: You have a sculpture called The Poet. The scale and way you have treated it suggest an outer in tinted and the inner is natural. The dialogue is also smooth and rough.
MD: What was going on in my mind was the idea of covering, like clothing.
JG: Cloaking the real within.
MD: I had no real idea of the title when I was working on it. The title came later. It’ like Rodin’s Balzac.
JG: And do you like the British Columbia painter Emily Carr’s painting?
MD: The really strong strokes in her paintings I find interesting.
JG: Your works tend to work with the flow of the wood, along the tree, and then they go vertical like trees in a forest. Do you believe there is an element of contrast with the environments you integrate your sculptures in?
MD: it is of it, but it also goes beyond it in a certain way. The shape I impose on a section of wood suggests more. Here I am a human and I am referencing humanity in a way, and our ancestors. I have alluded to previous artists,
JG: So you are in a dialogue with artists from all times.
MD: The thought carries on, goes inside me and stirs around. Back in the days when I was putting a lot of paint on wood, I was looking at a book of Gauguin’s paintings, and he had one of his paintings of five Tahitian women sitting on a bench that he called Market. He has these lovely strong colours, which I like, so I made a painting of it, and you could see the reference. I liked it, and other people liked it. I always felt that it doesn’t really count because I was copying Gauguin.
JG: Well originality is something of a myth.
MD: There is nothing truly original. So several years pass and I am looking at this new book on Gauguin’s painting which included his paintings as well as things in his personal collection. One of the things in his collection was a postcard of an Egyptian frieze with five women sitting on a bench. So after that I realized anything is legal. Part of the situation for up and coming artists now is “What do you do?”.
JG: Your sculpture is not part of the general current of contemporary art and new media. Your sculpture combines aspects of hyper-modernity, which is the natural world in my books. Something that we do not yet understand is that nature will determine the discourse of the future. And there is a part of your approach in sculpture that sources an archaic plasticism in terms of the positioning of the forms and the contra-posto even though they are trees. Archaic is hyper-modern because all materials are part of this ongoing endless transformation cycle we are all in, including buildings, art, cars, trees, people.
JG: Have patinas been a problem with your sculpture?
MD: Patinas have been a problem. In the end the wood changes no matter how you treat it. The straight natural wood does its thing. It is always changing, and leaving the wood natural may be as good as interfering with the surface with varnishes, polishes.
JG: Do you think through the medium of wood you are asking questions about origins, or myth, or place, or identity?
MD: When I was in the academic world, I was studying the nervous system, and asking questions about individual nerve cells, how they behave when they are growing, because finally our brain is what makes us unique and special. I feel that I am still studying that, Instead of looking at individual neurons, I am looking at the while shooting match. I like African art a lot. I respond to that a lot.
JG: Don’t we carry something of our origins through the acts we do or our creativity? Isn’t there something inter-generational, eternal something that is generating all of this?
MD: I think yes. I am trying to distill down to the most elemental forms.
JG: It is no longer about memory at this level. You are not actually copying or reproducing at this level, you are actually sensing things through the sculpture process.
MD: When I was alluding to the African sculpture, I feel like it speaks to me on some very elemental level in me. So now in my own work, what I am trying to do is to summon from that elemental level.
JG: It is a form of communication with something eternal in humanity. Something elemental about humanity as well as nature is in your work. You are communicating with some source or force in nature of which we are a part.
MD: When you ask me how do people in the city respond to my work, they like it a lot. I think that it’s the same. When it works I am touching them though they don’t know it.
JG: You are touching something universal, primordial, and persona in all of us.
MD: One thing that doesn’t happen to me is people never say, “I don’t get it!”. I have never had that.
JG: So in a way, although you had some knowledge of 20th century art, Duchamp and the way it turns out as a story that has already been pre-written, your own approach and working method have led you towards a broader expanse of history than the context within which art of your time was operating.
MD: Although I am still obliged to operate within that context to generate income, although I am hopefully going beyond it or before it at the same time.
JG: It is all being redefined now. There is a greater open-ness to a variety of languages of artistic expression now. Though we have the video, the new media, and the digital, it all still relates to this magpie consciousness of the human being. That goes back to the primordial, and the physical and the transformative. Your work is working through the media of nature as it is. So it is kind of an eternal thing.
MD: I choose to live my life as much as I can in the middle of it. I work outside, I sleep outside and I shit outside. If I were living in the city and living in an apartment and renting a studio what would come out of me I suspect would be quite different. The question “How does my work fit into the art story?” I don’t know.
JG: Romantic is a bad word now, beauty’s a bad word, and kitsch might be good. I have no idea who is defining it all. The training of people in the art world, and the weight of academia, may influence the direction art is now taking. Artists may want other to decide the language and then I will make the work. They say, “You decide the language. Then I will make the piece.”
MD: Because I did not go through any formal art training, I haven’t been burdened by that either.
JG: And that is where the simplicity can be a great strength. The gestures we see in your sculptures,
MD: The simplicity has been hard for me to allow. That is what I wanted all along.
John K. Grande is the author of Balance: Art and Nature (Black Rose Books, 1994), Art Nature Dialogues: Interviews with Environmental Artists (State University of New York Press, 2007, (<http://www.sunypress.edu/>www.sunypress.edu) , and Dialogues in Diversity: Art from Marginal to Mainstream, Pari Publishing, Italy, 2008 (<http://www.paripublishing.com/>www.paripublishing.com) ). He is co-author of Nils-Udo: Kunst Mit Natur (Aachen: Ludwig Forum, 1999), Bob Verschueren: Outdoor Installations (Editions Mardaga, Brussels (2010) and Le Mouvement Intuitif: Patrick Dougherty and Adrian Maryniak (Brussels: Atelier Muzeum 340, 2005). This year (2011) John K. Grande curated Eco-Art with Peter Selz at the Pori Art Museum in Finland and a Dennis Oppenheim retrospective at Galerie Samuel Lallouz in Montreal.
Art & Ecology, a book of 33 interviews with artists working with nature is being published in Shanghai, China in 2011.
John K. Grande